Stage Door Review

London, GBR: Edward II

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

✭✭✭✭✩

by Christopher Marlowe, directed by Nick Bagnall

Shakespeare’s Globe, Wanamaker Playhouse, London

February 22-April 20, 2019

Mortimer Junior: “Base Fortune, now I see, that in thy wheel 

There is a point, to which when men aspire, 

They tumble headlong down”

The Globe Theatre’s production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II is one that theatre-goers would likely never encounter in North America. As the only Early Modern play in English that places a same-sex couple at the centre of its story, North American directors, always concerned with contemporary relevance, unavoidably assume that the play is about gay love. It is not. It is about weak rulers who allow low-born favourites too much power. In the Globe production director Nick Bagnall makes certain that we see the issues in the play for what they are. Of course, it is important that a play from 1593 by Shakespeare’s brilliant contemporary should feature gay characters. But those who attend the production expecting that anti-gay prejudice plays a major part in the persecution of Edward II or of his beloved Piers Gaveston will be disappointed.

Marlowe follows his source, Holinshed’s Chronicles (1587), the same source Shakespeare used for his English history plays, quite closely. Upon the death of his father Edward I, Edward II (1284-1327) recalls his lover Piers Gaveston, whom his father had banished. Although Edward’s openly homosexual affair pleases no one at court, especially his wife Queen Isabella, Marlowe makes clear that what enrages the nobles is not the king’s sexuality but rather his elevation of a spendthrift commoner to high titles and his neglect of his kingly duties in defending England against attacks from France and Scotland.

This is the emphasis that Bagnall’s production takes. A key exchange between Edward’s and Gaveston’s chief enemies, the Mortimers, makes the unimportance of Edward’s homosexuality clear. Mortimer Senior states:

The mightiest kings have had their minions: 

Great Alexander loved Hephestion;
The conquering Hercules for Hylas wept; 

And for Patroclus stern Achilles drooped 

And not kings only, but the wisest men: 

The Roman Tully lov'd Octavius;
Grave Socrates, wild Alcibiades. 

Then let his grace, whose youth is flexible, 

And promiseth as much as we can wish, 

Freely enjoy that vain, light−headed earl.

To which Mortimer Junior replies: 

Uncle, his wanton humour grieves not me; 

But this I scorn, that one so basely born 

Should by his sovereign's favour grow so pert,

And riot it with the treasure of the realm.

When directors base opposition to Edward and Gaveston on anti-gay prejudice, they are simply ignoring this extremely clear passage in Marlowe’s text and thus distort the play. What the Mortimers object to is a king who ignores his nobles’ needs and gives a low-born flatterer power and wealth. The problem of how to deal with a king who puts private interests over the public good pre-occupied the Elizabethans and can be found not just in Edward II, but in Shakespeare’s Richard II and his three Henry VI plays. In the case of all three of these kings, the king’s opponents stoop to murder which is more than simply homicide since the English king is regarded as God’s anointed ruler. In each case the playwright asks his audience which is worse – a king who neglects his duties, or a noble willing to kill God’s substitute on earth in his quest for power. 

In Edward II, the main enemy of Edward (Tom Stuart) is Mortimer Junior (Jonathan Livingstone). He first plots the downfall of Gaveston (Benu Tessema), but when Edward replaces Gaveston with another minion Spencer Junior (Colin Ryan), Mortimer, who has now won the love of Edward’s neglected queen Isabella (Katie West), plots Edward’s own demise.

Marlowe deliberately emphasizes the parallel between Edward and Mortimer, who both pursue an illicit love roundly condemned by the Church – Edward’s homosexual love for Gaveston and Mortimer’s adulterous love for Isabella. To highlight this parallel even more, Bagnall makes both couples interracial with Edward and Isabella played by White actors and Gaveston and Young Mortimer played by Black actors. Then to further de-emphasize the importance of gender, Bagnall assigns most of the remaining male roles to female actors. Bagnall has thus done as much as he can to make us see past the false view that same-sex love is the play’s main focus to Marlowe’s real focus on the use and abuse of power.

Bagnall has assembled a cast of only ten which would have been the approximate size of an acting company of Marlowe’s time. Tom Stuart gives a rather unusual performance as Edward in that his king seems distrait as if constantly thinking of Gaveston whether Gaveston is present or not. At any questions that shake him out of this reverie, Stuart’s Edward becomes anything from irritated to enraged. Edward’s willingness to bestow honours on those who oppose him to bribe them to stop reveals Edward as a king who has lost all will to rule. For those who know King Lear, the ease with which Edward is willing to divide the kingdom would strike Marlowe’s contemporaries as outrageous: “Make several kingdoms of this monarchy, And share it equally amongst you all, So I may have some nook or corner left, To frolic with my dearest Gaveston”. Stuart is unafraid to make Edward appear as light-headed as his enemies claim he is.

Yet, as will become a regular trope in Shakespeare’s plays, once Edward is bereft of power he grows in insight and humanity. Stuart speaks more slowly and solemnly as if Edward’s suffering in various prisons had chastened the king. Stuart demonstrates that Edward’s endurance of his suffering and equanimity in the face of death grant hims a nobility that Edward never seemed to possess when king. 

Those hoping to find in the Edward-Gaveston relationship an ideal gay couple fo the 14th century, will discover that the cynical Marlowe has frustrated their hopes. Benu Tessema portrays Gaveston as a materialistic social climber who seems to relish the King’s favour because of the power it gives him more than the King’s love. The power he receives Gaveston uses only to encourage friction between the nobles and the King. It is, therefore, no surprise that the nobles want to remove Gaveston from his malign influence over Edward. Yet, like Edward, Gaveston has his own revelation when he must eventually face death. It is then that he makes his sincerest plea to see Edward before he dies as if finally he sees that Edward’s love is more important to him than any of the power he had. Tessema plays this change in Gaveston movingly and makes us wish that such an extreme circumstance had not been necessary to bring it out.

The main flaw in the production is the Queen Isabella of Katie West. Isabella is an absolute plum role. Isabella should begin by winning our sympathy as Edward’s unjustly though inevitably neglected queen. Then, gradually, her anger at Edward and attempts to appease him turn to enmity. She accepts Mortimer Junior as her lover, although she must know that he is only using her to gain the crown, and whatever sweetness she had previously shown evaporates and turns to evil. It is a great misfortune that West speaks her lines in the same over-emphatic manner from beginning to end so that we have no sense of when Isabella turns away from Edward and when her unhappiness turns to malice. Directors tend to focus so much on Edward and Gaveston, they forget that Isabella is probably the richest role Marlowe wrote for a female character since Dido.

Otherwise, the cast is uniformly strong. Jonathan Livingstone is an excellent Mortimer Junior, full of vigour and precise in speech, who intimates early on that cooperation with the nobles against first Gaveston and then Edward is just a means to further his own ends. Livingstone masterfully exposes the absolute coldness at Mortimer’s heart, and yet, Marlowe gives even this villain a key insight into the workings of the world before he dies: “Base Fortune, now I see, that in thy wheel There is a point, to which when men aspire, They tumble headlong down: that point I touch’d”. Livingstone delivers these lines in an entirely different tone than he has used before as if all the belligerence has been knocked out of him by this revelation.

Other actors play two or even three roles. Colin Ryan gives us slyly calculating Gaveston-in-waiting in the form of Spencer Junior, who has observed how a low-born youth can rise under Edward by flattery. Then he gives us a great study of Edward’s son Edward III, who chafes under the lack of authority his mother and Mortimer Junior allow him, only to gather his strength to condemn them later.

Richard Bremmer steals the spotlight as soon as he enters as the imposing Archbishop of Canterbury to condemn Edward and Gaveston for their ill treatment of one of his bishops. Later, he plays a completely opposite role as Spencer Senior, a country oaf who has no objections to pandering his own son to the King.

Also of note is Sanchia McCormack as fierce Earl of Warwick who dominates the scene more than even the nobles played by male actors. Polly Frame is a sympathetic Earl of Kent, whose fortunes Marlowe uses to manipulate our attitude toward Edward. Initially, Kent is Edward’s stanchest defender. Eventually, however, his misrule becomes too much and Kent goes over to the rebels’ side. Then, observing the rebels’ barbarity, he tries to return to the King’s side. This kind of figure Shakespeare will use frequently in his plays for the same purpose. Think of Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra or Camillo in The Winter’s Tale. What is most important is how well Frame portrays the nobility of Kent’s character as a person who aims to do right in a world in which there is no longer and right or wrong.

The great virtue of Bagnall’s production is that it demonstrates that Edward II is not that “gay play” so many people think it is, (such as one of authors of a note in the show’s programme). Rather, it is a great political play, easily the equal of Shakespeare’s history plays and a play that just happens to feature gay characters. In depicting the gayness in the play as incidental rather than essential, Bagnall’s production shows that Marlowe was, in fact, much more modern than most modern critics and directors imagine him. Because of this approach, which one hopes more will follow, this is a production of Edward II that anyone interested in a close reading of Marlowe’s text should make a point of seeing.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Benu Tessema as Gaveston and Tom Stuart as Edward II; Tom Stuart as Edward II; Jonathan Livingstone as Mortimer Junior, Colin Ryan as Edward III and Richard Bremmer as the Archbishop of Canterbury. © 2019 Marc Brenner. 

For tickets, visit www.shakespearesglobe.com.