Edward II – Olivier National Theatre, London
There’s no pretending that Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Marlowe’s Edward II is flawless, its modern stage design sprawls across the stage and up the walls onto huge screens showing live video footage, dragging this Renaissance piece firmly into the twenty-first century.
It’s a fairly simple story, Edward’s lover Gaveston was lavished with titles, money and guarded protection but later exiled as he was thought to be a danger to the King’s authority.
This relationship upsets many of the King’s nobles, and most notably his wife Isabella. Despite being a marriage of convenience Isabella is a proud and ambitious woman and she recalls her rival so that on his return he can be murdered.
The King thought to be a liability is imprisoned and then killed by deliciously cruel Lightborn who is in turn killed to ensure his silence. Having witnessed the betrayal of his father Edward III then orders the death of the remaining traitors and his mother’s imprisonment, the play ending with him succeeding to the throne.
John Heffernan takes to the stage in his first London lead role with subtlety and depth. His Edward has a child-like quality, desperately seeking the approval of Kyle Soller’s self-assured Gaveston. Their relationship is completely believable, assuring the audience that he would fight for the man he loves, yet his abdication speech is profoundly moving, nearly impossible to watch.
Vanessa Kirby’s moody Isabella is beautifully calculating yet unable to shake the hurt of rejection.
There are also some clever innovations. Gender-swapping allows Kirsty Bushell to take the role of the King’s sibling, establishing a strong rapport with the young Prince Edward (Bettrys Jones.) Some of the later scenes are spun on their heads by having some actors double up their roles, Alex Beckett and Matthew Pidgeon changing roles provides an unexpected twist to the climactic assassination.
￼Joe Hill-Gibbins utilises the space well with entrances from the back of the stalls as well as the wings. The live video elements are initially dizzying as the provide an insight into the areas of the stage hidden from view.
Clearly there are elements of this production that prove too much for some people as there were a number who failed to return after the interval.
Edward II is unlike anything else I have seen at the National Theatre but I hope that future creative ventures with similar flourish and diversity are encouraged and not stifled by supposed traditionalists.