What does one say about a play that features a homoeroticized figure of death calmly thrusting a hot poker up a deposed king's rectum?
For starters, Em-Lou Productions's staging of Marlowe's Edward II benefits from its enactment at the Rose Theatre on Bankside. The cold and dank archaeological excavation site provides a chilling atmosphere for this discomforting play. When Edward complains of being in a dungeon, there is little need for imagination. The space provides wonderful acoustics as well, and the actors occasionally turn to the cavernous blank to deliver their lines.
Marlowe's play has long been controversial, given that its subject matter is a king--Edward II (Matt Barber)--whose love for Piers Gaveston (Joseph Bader) and general mismanagement of the kingdom finds him at odds with his barons. The plot is a sometimes tedious exercise in 'Gaveston is exiled; Gaveston is recalled; lather, rinse, repeat' only altered by Gaveston's death, but then continued as the King takes a new 'minion' (every age has its euphemism), Spenser (Guy Warren-Thomas, doubling as that calmly eroticized bringer of death, Lightborn). Edward's estranged wife (he's gay, honey!) Isabella (Zoe Teverson), eventually joins forces--and bodies--with her lover Mortimer (Robert Fitch) in order to overthrow the weakened Edward. They succeed, but as Edward III (Jack Brett Anderson)--child of Edward II and Isabella--comes to the throne, he orders Mortimer's execution and his mother's imprisonment. As Joy Division reminds us, love will tear us apart--again.
Under Peter Darney's direction, the production moves swiftly, even relentlessly. It is played straight through, without intermission. Props are kept to a minimum, with the exception of a stunning throne (the program gives compliments to Steve Phillips), pointed and metallic, which doubles as Edward's deathbed. Designer Nicki Martin-Harper's costumes are a mish-mash. Some work quite well: super-skinny jeans, asymmetrically cut shirts (there's a fair bit of chest-age), and boots lend a raw edge to the court. However, a bishop's costume looks decidedly amateurish, and the bolero jacket pieces (and their short-cape offspring) flatter few.
The company gives a solid performance. In a play brimming with political machinations, Bader and Barber find an emotional centre in their characters' relationship. Martin Troakes as the disaffected Lancaster spurs on the drama and delivers well. Fitch's Mortimer and Teverson's Isabella are initially quite chaste (in contrast to the amply displayed love between Edward and Gaveston), but both morph into skilled, and sexually liberated, politicians. As for Warren-Thomas, he exudes creepiness as the assassin Lightborn. His interaction with Edward is peaceful and quieting but staged so as to leave no doubt that this is an image of sodomy. When he does the deed, Barber lets out a blood-curdling howl that echoes throughout the vast space, punctuating Marlowe's grim and sly reminder that death will always f--k you in the end.
Em-Lou Productions presents a compelling staging of Marlowe's play--one that is well acted and fast paced, though not always easy to watch.
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