Two really exciting shows in one week! First Jessica Swale's Blue Stockings at the Globe. And now Marlowe's Edward II at the National Theatre, which kept me on the edge of my seat for nearly three hours. To say that a lot of my theatrical prejudices were challenged by the second of these shows would be an understatement.
The production by Joe Hill-Gibbins (best known from his work at the Young Vic) contains lots of things that I usually hate in the theatre -- extensive use of live video, miked-up actors, elaborate sets, costumes that mix up different historical periods and a director who takes liberties with the text. But I loved it. And I loved it because, rather than in spite of, the radical things that Hill-Gibbins does with Marlowe's play about Edward and his male lover Gaveston. The crucial point is that none of them get in the way of the acting, but enhance it.
Hill-Gibbins is the director responsible for great versions of The Glass Menagerie and The Beauty Queen of Linnane at the Young Vic; I was less keen on his production of The Changeling, which struck me as incoherent. His work, like that of Rupert Goold, is radical both in concept and execution, and displays a determination to cross the conventional boundaries. It has a 'look at me!' quality which isn't always a guarantee that a play will work.
This production opens with the front half of the Olivier stage covered in a yellow semicircle of modern carpet, with a mediaeval royal throne on a dais at its centre. Marlowe's text opens with Gaveston reading a letter from Edward, telling him of his father's death and summoning him back to court. But this production does a quick copy-and-paste with a later scene in the play to enable us to start with Edward's coronation. Behind the throne the cavernous backstage holds a second acting area, hidden behind plywood flats, in which the actors are only visible through a live video link, transmitted to screens either side of the stage. The backstage area in Lizzie Clachan's design becomes a private realm where the barons do their plotting against the king, while the front semicircle is the arena of public confrontation. The costumes by Alex Lowde are a deliberately unsettling mixture of modern and ancient. Edward appears in a golden full-length medieval gown while Gaveston wears tight jeans and a black tee-shirt. The barons have steel armour above the waist and leather kilts below. The king's young son wears a crimson school blazer, and the action is criss-crossed by dark animal-like figures whose faces are hidden by giant warrior helmets. The effect is disconcerting, as it's meant to be, but the important thing is that these visual images, at first glance a bit of a muddle, are in fact coherent and focused on linking past and future. The mixture is no more bizarre than the annual state opening of parliament at Westminster, which does exactly the same.
The video links by Chris Kondek and the set design illuminate crucial moments in the play by allowing the camera to show action in one area while something else is going on downstage. Sometimes the camera gives us a close-up of a face in extremis, pinned to the floor where we would not normally see it. So we see the deposed Edward in a dungeon while elsewhere Mortimer and Edward's queen make love. This kind of device, like Gary Yershon's music, has to be used sparingly, and it is; Hill-Gibbins seems to be learning when to stop throwing the kitchen sink at his productions. As for the microphones, which normally aren't used in the Olivier except for musicals, they only take a moment to get used to. The quality of Paul Arditti's sound design is excellent, and the problem of audibility in the circle seats disappears as if by magic.
So far I haven't mentioned the poor bloody actors. John Heffernan now adds a stunning Edward II to his standout performance as Richard II at the Bristol Tobacco Factory. That production in a much smaller space was full of psychological subtlety, but Marlowe's play about a deposed king is very different from Shakespeare's. Heffernan is a terrific actor who isn't yet a household name, but deserves to be. I've seen him in plays by Harold Pinter, Oliver Goldsmith, Caryl Churchill, Friedrich Duerrenmatt and Nicholas Wright, and he's brought something different to all of them while always remaining unmistakably himself. It's a quality he shares with Simon Russell Beale and Roger Allam, two actors of a slightly older generation. Gaveston is equally well cast with the snake-like Kyle Soller, last seen as the star of the Young Vic's Government Inspector, making a spectacular entrance from the auditorium, sliding down the metal banisters to land on stage and embrace Edward in a passionate clinch. Soller's American accent badges him immediately as a transgressive outsider in this English realm where they sing God Save The King, even before he sticks his tongue down the king's throat. No wonder the barons want to get rid of him pronto.
The rest of the cast is equally convincing, particularly Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Mortimer, Vanessa Kirby as Queen Isabella, Bettrys Jones as the young prince Edward, who brings the play to a chilling close, and Kirsty Bushell as Kent. Soller doubles as the executioner Lightborn who despatches the king with a red-hot poker, delivering a visual echo of Gaveston that has Edward and the audience completely spooked.
I'm no expert on Marlowe, and I'm not sure quite how much the director and his dramaturg (rewrite person) Zoe Svendsen have changed the original, though they have clearly added some lines. What I do know is that the final result tells the story of Edward with great clarity, and I suspect Marlowe, rather than turning in his grave, would have loved it. Not everyone is going to be as enthusiastic about this production as I am (my companion didn't like it at all). Why did it leave me begging for more rather than looking at my watch and running for the exit? I think the key difference between this and some other high-concept productions that I haven't liked is that the design doesn't cramp what the actors are doing or dominate it. One always feels that they are in control, rather than battling against an imposed directorial concept. The result is that the play emerges clearly, rather than being lost in designer undergrowth.