Edward II

Christopher Marlowe
Olivier Theatre, National Theatre

Vanessa Kirby – Queen Isabella, Bettrys Jones – Prince Edward, John Heffernan – Edward II Credit: Johan Persson
Coronation Credit: Johan Persson
Kirsty Bushell – Kent, Kyle Soller – Gaveston, Kobna Holbrook-Smith – Mortimer, Alex Beckett – The Earl of Lancaster Credit: Johan Persson

From earliest days when he celebrated his James Menzies-Kitchin Award by producing Wallace Shawn's controversial A Thought in Three Parts, Joe Hill-Gibbins has never been afraid to challenge audiences or, for that matter, himself.

His debut at the National Theatre is as brave as it gets. He has chosen to stage Christopher Marlowe's difficult "gay" classic about a King gone badly wrong, using techniques much more profane than sacred.

John Heffernan gives a good performance as a King whose head is turned so far by a love that dares to shout its name that any nobles who care about their country would have removed him immediately, divine right or no.

His passion settles not on his beautiful wife Isabella, daughter of the French King and despairingly played by Vanessa Kirby, but another.

Kyle Soller's Gaveston seems to have drifted in from an audition to play Hunter S Thompson, with modern dress and a broad accent born in the Southern states of a country from the wrong side of the Atlantic, not to be discovered by Europeans for a couple more centuries.

The brazen homosexual romancing is shocking, even to relatively modern audiences and could not have been portrayed in this city 50 years ago. Such is its power, the King forgets Queen and realm, intoxicated by his wastrel lover.

The nobles dissemble and bicker until, led by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith as Mortimer and the calm Kent, sister (rather than brother) to the King, portrayed by Kirsty Bushell in sexy black suit and killer stilettos, they demand action.

This is effective but only up to a point, as Gaveston's demise merely moves the conveyor belt up one catamite, with the supply seemingly unending.

After his arrest, Edward at last finds the dignity that one might expect from a King, well conveyed by Heffernan. At the same time Mortimer, by now the Queen's lover and new monarch's Protector, develops laughably megalomaniacal tendencies. This pair can't rule for long and don't.

Thereafter, if hope has to rest with Bettrys Jones as the pre-teen Edward III, something is seriously wrong in the state of England.

The mix of period and modern, as well as the gender-bending, amuses but makes a play that doesn't always work even harder to credit. Audiences may also be distracted by Lizzie Clachan's intentionally unfinished set and the use of visible microphones that might more normally be seen on performers in big budget musicals.

Modernity gets an extra leg-up with close up film projected on two large screens providing voyeuristic enhancements from behind the scenes as well as in front.

This is a brave attempt to make a 400-year-old play accessible but the danger is that visitors might find it all superficial melodrama rather than a profound examination of royalty under threat.

To be fair to Joe Hill-Gibbins, the characters are so inconstant and unpredictable that it is not easy to persuade viewers to take them seriously, even without this kind of makeover.

The good news is that many seats at each performance are available at £12 for anyone who enjoys their classics demi-updated.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

*Some links, including Amazon, Stageplays.com, Bookshop.org, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?