Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe
Tom Stuart’s new play (and it is only his second produced one) is stimulating, intelligent, intriguing, deeply serious and very, very funny. It is simply presented on the Wanamaker’s bare stage yet in Brendan O’Hea’s production full of theatricality and surprises, hilarious yet at times very moving: you may find yourself crying, though the tears in my eyes were joyful ones.
In the darkness with which the play starts, there’s a heavy thump, a body has landed on the stage floor. Light flickers in various places as two monkish figures light candles to reveal a richly robed churchman who we learn is the Archbishop of Canterbury (Richard Bremer in this costume from the current production of Edward II), the cleric who threatened the king with deposition in Marlowe’s play.
The poor man on the floor (played by the dramatist himself) doesn’t know who or where he is—but Canterbury clearly does. After jokily asking if he remembered to bend his knees on landing, he goes on to be surprised he’s not in pain for he knows it is Edward II and how he was murdered (with a red hot rod pushed up the rectum). Is he a little disappointed that the answer is no?
The Archbishop leaves but Edward (if it is he) finds he can’t get out but others can get in. The first to arrive is a woman riding on a toilet on wheels. From her convoluted speech patterns, she is recognisably Gertrude Stein (why she’s enthroned on a toilet comes later), a masterly performance from Annette Badland. It is she who discovers a nametag on Edward’s clothing that gives identification (or does it, for he is played by the dramatist who is also Edward in the Marlowe play?).
These two are joined by other gay icons: Quentin Crisp (Richard Cant) and Harvey Milk (Polly Frame) who equally find they are trapped here and seem to think “Edward” must have summoned them. There are also fleeting appearances from the Village People’s gay stereotype Leather Man Biker, Cowboy and Construction Worker, who seem to be able to come and go, even appearances from Dorothy from Oz (or is it Garland?) and Maria von Trapp.
With the arrival of Edward Alleyn (Jonathan Livingstone), Shakespeare contemporary and first to perform Marlowe’s Edward, there’s a more historical frame of reference. When Edward’s lover Gaveston appears (Beru Tessena who plays him in the Marlowe), things become personal and contemporary.
Meanwhile, Margaret Thatcher (a devastating Sanchia McCormack) pops up through a trapdoor (with great acclaim from the audience when she is pushed down again) but she is soon back all over the auditorium swinging her handbag and spouting her Clause 28 speech.
Stuart’s play offers a cross-section of gay attitudes: individualist Crisp, militant Milk, Stein missing wife Alice. It looks back to before the modern concept of homosexuality, explores why these gay people can’t escape from that which imprisons them (they aren’t really in Limbo, though you might have thought so) and details the damage that Section 28 did to a whole generation of young men.
There is still someone or something knocking on the doors and banging on the walls trying to get in, still surprise to follow.
After Edward is about gay pride, gay shame and gay politics, with a look at the way performer and character may interact in life as well as on stage. It is gay introspection and celebration that bursts into a stirring version of the Pet Shop Boy’s “Liberation” but you don’t have to be gay to enjoy it, or to have seen Marlowe’s Edward, for this is a non-stop 100 minutes of candle-lit entertainment in which every actor delivers.
After Edward was written specifically for the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse but it deserves to be seen much more widely than for this short run. Meanwhile, grab a seat for one of the two remaining performances.