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Leather and Lace: Edward II

The Royal National Theatre | London, UK

Performance Date: September 13, 2013

Lee Benjamin Huttner

April 23, 2014

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Entering the cavernous Olivier Theatre, the largest of the three theatre spaces at the Royal National Theatre complex in Southbank, London, it seems as though I’ve walked in mid-rehearsal, or even in the middle of the construction of the set itself. The walls that would normally divide the vast backstage from the main stage and conceal it from the audience’s view are lifted, exposing untold yards of lighting flies and cables, layers of suspended backdrops, as well as the stored set pieces for Othello, running in repertory in the same theatre —faux concrete barriers, beds and desks and bathroom stalls carefully piled up in neat jigsaw heaps. While the audience is still being seated, a pianist (Sam Cable) enters and begins to play on a Casio keyboard, while some time later the actors, rendered completely visible by the effacement of the divide between front- and backstage, move into their places for the start of the show, costumed in a mix of medieval and modern clothing — business suits clash with armored breastplates and Vera Wang dresses. It’s a stunningly unique and, admittedly, disquieting way to open the show, without any pretention to artifice; an immediate reminder of the material and economic adhesions of theatrical productions, and a thematic refusal, explored throughout director Joe Hill-Gibbins’s giddily subversive, if occasionally heavy-handed production, to locate the play (physically or diegetically) anywhere but the theatre.

The show begins, if it hasn’t begun already, not with Marlowe’s text, but with history’s. Regal gold curtains descend and an elaborate procession of most of the major players in the story leads to a coronation scene, adapted from the actual dialogue of Edward II’s fourteenth-century coronation ceremony. The hesitation to speak the ritual words on the part of Edward — played with a satisfying mix of naiveté, impetuousness, and pathos by the wiry and red-bearded John Heffernan — sets the scene for how Edward will come to be characterized in the play proper. As Edward is crowned and the procession exits to an echoing, masculine chant of “Vivat Rex!”, another, and certainly the most amusing of the production’s surprises is revealed. A loud and insistent clapping disturbs what is expected to be a brief silence between scenes. Naturally, heads turn and glares are prepared to silence the inept disruption, only to find a spotlight picking out the reveler seated among the audience. At this signal that this is, in fact, part of the show, laughs ripple through the audience as the illuminated young man mockingly echoes the shouts of “Vivat Rex!” before sidling into the well-known opening lines the play, “My father is deceased; Come, Gaveston" — and there is no doubt now as to the identity of the interjector — “and share the kingdom with thy dearest friend.” Scaling handrails and clambering over seats (and laps), and eventually onto the stage, Gaveston, played by American actor Kyle Soller, looking as though he has just stepped out of a Soho club in skinny jeans and leather jacket, finishes his monologue before the rest of the cast enters for the first of many scenes in which Edward is berated by the Peers.

Mortimer Junior, portrayed hot-headedly by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, immediately establishes himself as an antagonistic force to be reckoned with, and is pitted against Kent, here played by Kirsty Bushell as the King’s sister, while Vanessa Kirby’s Queen Isabella, channeling Cersei Lannister, looks on, silently plotting. Isabella is accompanied, as she almost always is during the play, by Bettrys Jones as the diminutive Prince Edward, in the uniform and bowl cut of an Edwardian schoolboy, often relegated to lighting his mother’s cigarettes and topping up her champagne flute. The physical intimacy and attraction between Edward and Gaveston is made immediately tangible at their first (re)meeting, and they make no hesitations about embracing and kissing, to the visible ire of Isabella and the Peers. There’s much in the production, particularly in the relationship between Edward and Gaveston, that’s played for laughs, such as the lavish medals and trophies Edward layers on Gaveston seemingly as arbitrarily as he layers him with titles, but there are quick turns from the comic to the unsettling, and I was often unable to decide whether or not I should be laughing at Edward’s follies, as when the Bishop of Coventry is tormented and tortured to Edward’s celebratory cries for raucous music. A curious feature of the production is the use of a kind of silent Greek chorus referred to in the program as “The Dogs,” armored figures wearing dog-faced masks who serve various roles during the play. Whenever a character is killed or otherwise disappeared, he or she returns as one of these ghostly cynocephali, suggesting that the presence of those who have died can never be fully effaced. They may serve alternately as Edward’s army or as soldiers who drag Gaveston to exile, intimating that the faceless dead are not on anybody’s side.

The most marked, and certainly most talked-about, feature of the production is its use of video. Two screens set high on either side of the stage are used throughout the production, onto which are variously projected Brechtian titles for each scene, prerecorded sequences taking place beyond the stage, and live feeds of on-stage activity, most often when the council of Peers enters inside a barricaded mid-stage structure which serves sometimes as a board room in which landline telephones take the place of messengers, sometimes as a techno-infused rave crammed with writhing bodies. The Dogs act as videographers for these interior scenes, carrying video cameras as though they were documentarians of an imminent history, or journalists caught in an anachronistic 24-hour news cycle of political anarchy. It often makes for a disjointed viewing experience, as there is hardly ever a single point to which to direct your attention, switching from screen to stage and back again. Yet it also often provides a sense of intimate access bordering on claustrophobia which is otherwise impossible to feel in the massive Olivier amphitheatre; it’s a reminder that decisions that lead to the implosion of a kingdom are made in the smallest of council chambers. Great reckonings in little rooms, indeed.

When pre-recorded video is used, it is anything but cinematic. We first meet the scholar Baldock (Ben Addis) and his inveigling pal Spencer (Nathaniel Martello-White) in a scene filmed at dusk on the roof of the National itself, the brutal and imposing cement edifice serving as Edward’s castle into which, through a series of Laurel and Hardy-esque sped-up sequences that include throwing a stage manager out of his booth, the two must steal. The flagrant metatheatrics attest once again to Hill-Gibbins’s vision of a 21st-century Elizabethan theatrical practice in which, just as the space of the Globe or other theatres were palpable presences or even veritable characters in a performance (“this wooden O”), the place and space of performance is rendered visible rather than invisible, repeatedly gestured toward rather than occluded. Though this playfulness takes something of the tragedy out of Marlowe’s history play, it certainly raises the question of how to grapple with the inevitable alterity of Elizabethan drama.

The push and pull of consuming eroticism and devastating passions plays out on stage, as walls are torn down in war and rebuilt once Mortimer and Isabella prove victorious; characters are literally elevated above the stage and tumble headlong down; bodies are stripped of their clothing and pomped up with fur stoles and plated armor; it is as though Fortune’s wheel can be felt turning dizzily behind the scenes (although, ironically, the Olivier’s famous revolving stage was out of order for the duration of the shows in repertory). For the last quarter of the play, though, things slow down almost to a halt, once Gaveston, Spencer, and Baldock have all been killed, and Edward is left abandoned and alone. Prince Edward’s coronation, a mocking reprise of the opening scene in which his mother, acting as prompter, forces him to say the words of the ritual and an oversized crown slips down his weeping face, concludes with a depressing rendition of “God Save the King.” The anthem is a wishful prelude, perhaps, to the “lamentable death” of Edward II, who has been led around the stage in a slow trudge, his desperate, exhausted face projected on the screens, recalling the deposed king’s forced marches between prisons in Kenilworth, Corfe, and Berkeley. The same actors who played Lancaster and Warwick now portray Maltravers and Gurney, Edward’s brutal jailers, and Kyle Soller has been transformed from Gaveston into Lightborn, his executioner. A clear plastic tarp is laid out over the stage for Edward’s final scene, his infamous end played out to the last gruesome detail. It’s hard to imagine that the play goes on after Edward’s murder, but Marlowe insists that it does, though even pintsized Edward III’s final surge of power as he condemns his mother to exile and Mortimer to death does little to sweeten the bitterness.

This is the first time Edward II has been staged at the National Theatre, and it seems like the right moment to put on a play about a king in love with another man, or men, particularly given the recent legalization of same-sex marriages in England and Wales, and, more recently, Scotland. The history of the play’s performance in the twentieth century is one bound up in the history and performance of sexuality — Ian McKellen’s televised kiss on the BBC in 1970, Simon Russell Beale’s leather-clad performance for the RSC in 1991, and Derek Jarman’s anachron(ist)ic film adaptation of the same year responding to the gross injustices of Section 28 and other anti-gay laws then still in effect in the UK. But as I learned in conversation with Hill-Gibbins, the Marriage Act was never brought up during the rehearsal process. The essays in the program do not address at great length the centrality of sexuality in the play, and make it clear that the production is intended to revolve more around the themes of ambition, social decay, and the agency of history, though mention is made of Marlowe’s reputation as a “hipster” and his “camp” aesthetic. “The erotic and the political realms are troublingly intertwined,” Emma Smith writes in her contributing essay, “as homosexuality seems to serve as a metaphor for political influence and vice versa.” That Edward II is so often placed in the canon of queer literature says more, perhaps, about what people want out of the play than what the play may actually provide. What is certain is that Marlowe’s visceral verse and transgressive tales of mad, bad men present a challenge to contemporary directors, actors, and audience members alike for whom the touchstone for classical English drama is Shakespeare. The National, in meeting this challenge, has tested our own expectations of Elizabethan theatre. Their Edward II, courting both ire and applause from London critics, has succeeded, at the very least, in pushing the play ever further toward the making of progressive, aggressive, and challenging theatre.

Lee Benjamin Huttner is a Ph.D student in the Department of English at Northwestern University. He researches temporality and sexual subjectivity in early modern poetry and drama, as well as representations of queer history in contemporary theatre and film.

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