Edward II review – Marlowe's murky drama of love, murder and a hollow crown

There seems to be blood on an archbishop’s hands within the first moments of Nick Bagnall’s production of Edward II. Except on closer inspection, it turns out to merely be a pair of crimson gloves, held in prayer over the coffin of the dead, great Edward I. It’s symptomatic of this latest attempt at Marlowe’s tricky play, which promises high drama but settles for a juicy bit of colour.

The plot kaleidoscopes the disastrous reign of Edward II; rebellions and alliances that reconfigured over decades seem to play themselves out in the space of days. Edward II, overshadowed by his warrior father, neglects the state and lavishes his treasury on his lover Piers Gaveston, to the disgust of his nobles. They revolt and Edward’s French Queen Isabella, after much anguish, decides to throw her lot in with lead rebel Mortimer and seek to rule through her son.

Bagnall’s direction ably draws out the parallels with Shakespeare’s Richard II, first performed a few years after Marlowe’s play, especially in the deposition scene, in which Tom Stuart’s Edward plays with a familiar hollow crown. (Jessica Worrall’s costume choices help here.) There are echoes of Julius Caesar in the old revenge-cycle-meets-politics structure: the king is a nightmare; the rebels seem sympathetic; the king is deposed; the rebels turn to infighting and more bloodshed. Plus ça change.

Dignified … Katie West as Queen Isabella in Edward II. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Beru Tessema is captivating as a cynical Gaveston; in a doubling that has become traditional, he also brings Edward’s death, as the satanic murderer Lightborn. Marlowe’s depiction of the relationship between Edward and Gaveston forges well past the “homosocial” to the homosexual, but wears it lightly: Edward’s subjects are more worried about the money wasted on his lover than that lover’s sex.

Stuart gives a moving portrait of an insecure man consumed by hopeless love; Katie West is a dignified Isabella. (Marlowe is more sympathetic than folk history has been to the “she-wolf of France”.) The cast, especially Tessema, speak Marlowe’s verse beautifully. But the production, struggling with this play’s leaden structure, loses momentum towards the end. The last few scenes are performed in deep darkness: it feels more like lights out for nap time than dramatic effect.

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