Lazarus Theatre Company in association with Greenwich Theatre
On a table-top, beside a jumble of white papers and a blood-red, rotary-dial telephone, sits a sparkling diamante crown. Bare-footed businessmen pace tensely around this subterranean office, as a tolling bell and disembodied voice count down the minutes until the coronation of the new king. The telephone jangles. The king is dead: long live the king. The crown is placed upon the head of the gold-cloaked Edward II; a tall candelabra stands, ominously, stage-left.
The opening moments of Ricky Dukes’s adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II present little dialogue but plenty of action. In the flickering blackness, to a booming sound-track, the cast of nine race back and forth across stage at the Greenwich Theatre. Slickly choreographed, the courtiers are gathering, whispering, machinating as they await the return of Edward’s French ‘minion’, the exiled Piers Gaveston, whose promotion to ‘Lord High Chamberlain, Chief Secretary to the state and me, Earl of Cornwall, King and Lord of Man’ and, Lord of Misrule, will irk their self-righteous sense of hierarchy and entitlement.
This Lazarus Theatre Company production was first seen last year at the Tristan Bates Theatre, and, while the main stage of the Greenwich Theatre (where Lazarus is beginning a year-long residency) potentially offers greater expanse, Dukes chooses to emphasise the claustrophobic intensity of the drama—in which the ‘outside world’ is barely acknowledged—lowering the ceiling and defining the acting space with a white-tiled square. No one, except Queen Isabella, leaves these confined quarters, and, as personal and political conflicts escalate, the pressure cooker heats up.
The modern dress is fitting for this is a ‘modern’ play, in the sense that political roles are nothing more than conduits to the fulfilment of personal desires. At the close, when the aristocratic assassins prepare to remove, by the cruellest of means, the obstacle to their own power, they strip down to black briefs and masks: naked ambition, indeed.
Dukes’s adaptation reduces Marlowe’s play to 90 minutes and it undoubtedly has a relentless momentum as it drives towards its merciless conclusion. Subversive undercurrents do not so much brew as explode. Yet, the thrilling impetus also presents problems, for all too often the pace murders the poetry. Not only does the pounding drumbeat often obliterate the speakers, or force them to shout, but at times the haste weakens the emotional resonance of Marlowe’s text.
Timothy Blore presents Edward in all his over-excitable, petulant self-absorption. Frantic and flimsy, he is unable to restrain his passion for Gaveston, or to refrain from expressing it. Why should, he? After all, he is the king. Edward’s obsessions and self-indulgence border on ridiculousness: like a child he flaunts his lover, taunts his wife and destabilises his country. But Blore conveys little sense, as surely Marlowe intends, of the sincerity of the king’s love, of his genuine pain when Gaveston is again banished—a pain which becomes ‘brain-sickness’ as Edward descends into madness.
Disappointingly, Blore rushes, even garbles, Edward’s final soliloquy when, with weary despair, he futilely yearns for a moment of comfort among his friends and anguishes over the torments he has endured. After all the empty bombast that has preceded, here, at last, Edward should possess an eloquence worthy of his divine right to rule, but Blore’s King lacks dignity.
Alicia Charles, as Isabella, is more successful in conveying regal strength and Isabella’s public pronouncements have authority. The textual excisions weaken the distinctions between the courtiers—Lancaster’s vanity (Stephen Emery) or Kent’s loyalty (Alex Kur), for example; and, there is no young Spencer to serve as Edward’s deputy degenerate in Gaveston’s absence.
But, as the Mortimers Senior and Junior, Stephen Smith and Jamie O’Neill respectively capture the weight of brooding hostility directed at the monarch who subverts established hierarchies and ignores sexual mores. O’Neill, in particular, smoulders with a hidden violent passion equal in intensity to Edward’s overt erotic cravings, coldly deliberating with Machiavellian menace. Oseloka Obi’s Gaveston has a physical grace and presence, conveying a strength that Edward lacks, as he gloats in his promotions with an easy sway of entitlement.
Obi returns as Lightborn in the final scene. The stage is swathed in plastic sheeting as the tribal drumbeat thunders and strobe lights glare aggressively. The pre-show warnings about male nudity and violence seem unnecessary, for the murder of Edward is most shocking for its ruthless rapidity.
And the final moments of Marlowe’s drama are similarly hasty. We are denied the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer (the second part of Marlowe’s full title): his boastful defiance as he dares the court to impeach him; his hubris when proof of regicide condemns him. Similarly, Isabella’s pleading with her son, the new King Edward III, to spare her lover’s life and Edward’s reestablishment of civil and moral order, when he imprisons his mother and executes Mortimer, are omitted.
Instead, a trickle of blood dribbles from the table where the dead king lies, recalling the red cord of the telephone which had brought news of his ascension. And, with perfect timing, the air reverberates once again with the telephone’s clanging peel. It is the new king, who sentences Mortimer Junior to death: a darker version of being sacked by text message.
While I would have liked more reverence for Marlowe’s poetry, Dukes’s production certainly confirms, in our own turbulent times, that—as the Elizabethan dramatists and courtiers knew—there are lessons to be learned from history.
Reviewer: Claire Seymour