Edward II, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Tom Stuart was lucid and persuasive on Start the Week (Radio 4) this morning, talking about Edward II as king and about Marlowe’s play. Catch that on BBC Sounds and the production, in which he plays Edward, until April 20.

Here’s my review:

Nick Bagnall’s invigorating, involving production makes full use of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, its uniquely intimate architecture and the revealing and concealing effects of candlelight. Nobles in medieval tights appear among the audience increasing the sense of urgency. And the execution of Edward has never looked so realistically gruesome as Lightborn wields the poker, its point glowing red, towards his victim lying naked in near darkness.

Bagnall’s judiciously trimmed version, in which some characters are conflated and the action hurtles along, focuses on the conflict between personal fulfilment and responsibility. Edward (Tom Stuart) is blinded by love for Gaveston (Beru Tessema) rather than wilfully childish, naif rather than wicked. While the relationship is no longer shocking in itself, its political implications, as Edward showers his lover with inappropriate titles, remain problematic. And its effect on Queen Isabella (Katie West) trying first to do her duty despite personal disappointment and then finding a steely determination to clear the path for her son, has a recognisably human dimension. Stuart’s Edward is a complex character, sympathetic as well as exasperating and he and Tessema are a believably self-involved couple, careless of everything outside themselves.

Edward II

With an acting cast of only 10 (supported by four musicians) there is, of necessity, a good deal of doubling. Colin Ryan is especially noteworthy as a risible bishop, as Spenser, Gaveston’s successor in the king’s affections, and as the young Prince Edward. Cross-gender casting, a staple in Globe theatres, works well in this production. Annette Badland, an authoritative Mortimer Senior, reappears as Arundel and then an abbot, while Polly Frame is a morally divided Kent, confused as to how far to support his brother, the wayward Edward. One thing this production does especially well is to bring out the pressures Edward’s behaviour has on the structure of his family.

The design, by Jessica Worrall, suggests a medieval world, brutal but stunningly beautiful, the latter aspect much helped by the floor of the stage now transformed by photographs of mosaics from Westminster Abbey and by the singing of sacred music.

Tom Stuart’s own play, After Edward, which again features the king and his lover, also has Gertrude Stein, Harvey Milk and Quentin Crisp among its characters. It opens on March 21st, part of the Globe’s festival, Voices in the Dark: Pride, Then and Now

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