Battersea Arts Centre
This is a pared down production that dispenses with many minor characters and turns the child Prince Edward into a babe in arms - which does make one wonder just when he was got, since his father seems unlikely to have had the opportunity or the inclination in the time span. Marlowe has telescoped a twenty year reign to seem like a series of events that closely follow each other and keeping things to bare essentials wonderfully concentrates this fast moving production.
At the centre of the drama is the passionate homosexual love of King Edward II for his favourite Piers Gaveston, whom the late king had chosen as his son's companion but then exiled to remove his influence. The play begins with Gaveston receiving his recall back to England on Edward's accession and from Tom Robertson's delivery of Pier's first speech on we can feel confident that Marlowe's verse is in good hands. All this cast manage to hold the thought through Marlowe's long thought patterns and are not afraid to play full throttle even in this studio space.
This is not really a play about homosexuality: Michael Oakley's modern-dress production makes it clear that the opposition of England's barony to the Crown is not about sexual tastes but about class and power. There is a certain amount of steamy osculation and a few moments of bare male chests but no over indulgence in gay titillation, this is less a matter of sex than loyalties. The historic Edward was no weakling, but more interested in entertainment than administration, though seeking to consolidate the power his father had established. However, the way his father had dominated his life left him susceptible to the influence of others. He fathered two sons and two daughters on wife Isabella so there was no fear for the succession but his nobles thought he was too interested in plebeian pursuits and - worse - consorted with those beneath him. They were worried about their own position. This is made very clear when the elder Mortimer, in a speech beautifully played by James Clarkson, reminds the other lords that many of history's rulers and heroes had male lovers and suggests this should be accepted. It is his son, Roger Mortimer, who stirs them to demand the king re-exile Gaveston. Tom Robertson makes young Mortimer a ruthless general, masterminding a military coup, seething with outrage at Gaveston's preferment and the king's rejection of his nobles. Strategy and military discipline can't keep it bottled-up and he overflows with anger, though reverting to the automatic reflexes of military protocol in formal situations. It is a performance that could overpower in this small space but the actor's concentration pulls it off and there is something very sinister about the way that once in power this Mortimer dons severely formal civilian garb.
His victim, Edward, can be just as vengefully vindictive. Philip Cumbus, in relaxed t-shirt or stylish boots makes him a strikingly casual contrast. This is a young man who, on succeeding to the throne, is determined to do his own thing. With Marlowe's telescoping of the reign it is an effective interpretation, and played with passion. These opposing men are both consumed by the personal rather than the needs of the English people and, as this becomes increasingly clear in Mortimer, it throws the other theme of divinely appointed kingship into sharper focus.
As we move towards the squalid end of the deposed and imprisoned king, Oakley contracts his production, voices are lowered and lighting is reduced to the beams of electric torches only part lighting faces. The idea, presumably, is to tightly concentrate our attention and hide the mechanics of the murdering of Edward. The night I saw it this went just a bit too far. Taking voices, as well as illumination, down to such low levels carried concentration into straining: no help to the actors. You always hear better when you can see an actor's face and it is a measure of the strength of their earlier playing that they still held the audience's attention and the neon glow of the instrument used by the murderer did not induce a laugh. But good theatre is about risk taking and this is a fearless production, fearlessly played.
Director Michael Oakley is the winner of the JMK Award 2008 and this is his JMK Trust production (www.jmktrust.org) at BAC until 9th August 2008
Reviewer: Howard Loxton