Edward II, by Christopher Marlowe, Eyestrings, St Andrew's Church Holborn, London

  SEPTEMBER 2008  
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There is certainly a plethora of Edward II 's to hand these days. Asking an American academic to accompany me to last night's offering by the self-professed ‘collective of young theatre practitioners', I received the pained response, “I can't, I've seen three Edwards this year already!” What a lame excuse, I say. This is only my second.

That said, it is understandable why the play should have such a resurgence of popularity in the twenty-first century. Marlowe's overt engagement with issues of homosexual desire and scandalous effeminacy in authoritative power resonate with audiences for whom homoeroticism has become a mainstream expression of personal choice and artistic influence. The sight of a passionate embrace between male lovers, of same-sex love and lust, no longer shocks or subverts as it might for our post-Victorian forebears. Instead, it demonstrates the timelessness of homosocial engagement and thus legitimizes what has, for too long, been stigmatized by its perception as prurient illegitimacy.

Where, then, does the Eyestrings theatre company production of Edward II fit into this artistic debate? Owen Horsley, calling upon the resources of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormorod's ‘Cheek by Jowl' expertise, has chosen to present a site-specific version in the ancient crypt of St Andrew's Church Holborn. Ancient indeed, with foundations dating back to the Roman period of occupation when we Brits were nothing more than dangerous insurgents. The crypt consists of two low-vaulted chambers of considerable length, intersected by a through passageway. The audience sit along either wall of the second of these chambers, so creating a traverse acting space for the narrative to unfold.

Kristina Hjelm's lighting design adds to the claustrophobic discomfort of the venue. Six bare light-bulbs hang suspended along the length of the chamber, whilst corridor lighting from one end penetrates as far as the simple throne and royal portrait at the other. Why this royal portrait should be of George V (possibly because of his fathering the ill-fated and uncrowned Edward VIII) is unclear. There certainly is no other visual or conceptual reference to any early-twentieth-century social structure. Hjelm's stark lighting often envelops the actors in absolute darkness. At times interesting, at others, infuriating.

Far more successful is the sound design of Helen Atkinson. The use of the other chamber of the crypt for ‘off-stage' moments, such as Queen Isabella's impassioned speech to her subjects, is wonderfully effective. What is fast becoming a soundscape cliché, however -- the throbbing nightclub beat of partying hedonism -- remains so long an aural signifier of the court that at times I found my feet tapping to the music rather than listening to the play.

Listen to the play I certainly needed to do, especially if I was to have any idea of the plot as it was unfolding. Horsley has elected to condense Marlowe's political tragedy into ninety minutes of non-stop drama. Obviously intended to add pace and dynamism, the effect is, unfortunately, less than successful. Gone are the subtle shifts in tone, with only the skeleton of the play remaining in view. If you are going to perform a play which, as I mentioned at the beginning, has become a regular visitor to the stage, then it is surprising that the most famous moment of its drama, the onstage horrific murder of the king, should be relegated to a few ‘Hammer-horror' screams from an offstage actor.

So, I have problems with the director's concept of the play. It would be unfair, as so many critics seem to do, to lay blame at the feet of the actors. There are some good performances which rise above the production and touch the heart. Mark Martin is a most convincing Gaveston, the overtly homosexual favourite of King Edward, and a man loathed by those who recognize the danger of his sexual control over his sovereign. Martin's delivery, precise and musical in tone, captures the petulant audacity of Gaveston's role. His eventual death at the hands of Warwick (Phil Cairns), enacted in full view of the audience in a violent act of knife-crime which mirrors its own form of sexual penetration, is horrifically graphic and disturbing and utterly valid.

Jasmine Mohammed plays the innocent Margaret, niece to King Edward, whose betrothal to Gaveston in an act of political subterfuge is heart-rendingly doomed. The shock of discovering her groom in the passionate embrace of another man is beautifully evoked by Mohammed.

Owen Young plays King Edward as a man who cannot come to terms with his own lusts and desires. Edward's yearning for Gaveston, when confronted by Gaveston's own overt response, is tempered with a reserve and introspective unease which seems at odds with the character being portrayed. There are times when we long for Edward to wake up and smell the sexual coffee. Quite why Kelly Hotten's Queen Isabella should even care what her husband does behind closed doors is lost on us. Royal intrigue is, sadly, relegated to everyday suburban angst.

This is a brave venture attacked with commitment and obvious panache by a young group of actors in a fascinatingly quirky venue. For it to develop, issues of clarity -- not in performance but in narrative development -- need to be addressed. As for my American colleague, perhaps she should have joined me on this evening. She would have experienced a completely novel take on what is fast becoming an oft-played early modern classic.

Kevin Quarmby © 2008