Written in 1592, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II is a spectacular exploration of what happens when passion and politics mix, when desires and allegiances are compromised, and what happens when you are forced to choose one over the other. While Marlowe’s Edward pursues his desires over good government and lawfulness, his play has perhaps been eclipsed by another Elizabethan play about a transgressive king faced with a similar choice. That is not to denigrate Marlowe’s play which is strong by itself but, like Edward II, Sport for Jove’s production suffers from following its passion for accessibility and contemporaneity rather than its foundations in solid dramatic traditions.
Edward II is a tour-de-force showcase for an atheistic Marlowe to foreground his distaste for the church’s overbearing presence in all facets of society, and to highlight the knowledge and tolerance to be found in Greco-Roman literature, particularly that of homosexuality. While Marlowe undoubtedly does that, in Terry Karabelas’ production the clarity and passionate damnation which fired Marlowe’s pen seems somewhat blunted by a desire to make this four-centuries-old play resonate with a modern audience, while the marriage equality debate swirls through contemporary life. Alicia Clements’ set is a simple series of movable wall panels in dark tones, rearranged to suit Marlowe’s ever-shifting locations, while Melanie Liertz’s costumes are an anachronistic mix of contemporary street-wear, military fatigues, evening wear, ceremonial military insignia, and rich medieval fabrics. It’s the same standard of design we have come to expect from Sport for Jove, except without any real flair or singular stroke of clarity which would have illuminated this production’s stance or conceit. David Stalley’s ever-present sound design of religious choirs intoning te deum and requiem loses its impact after the opening moments, while Ross Graham’s lighting is cleverly deployed to create a chiaroscuro effect which elegantly highlights the medieval roots of the story, and the darkness at the heart of the play.
As with Sport for Jove’s other productions, textual fidelity is maintained, with Marlowe’s rich blank verse deployed to full effect (even the occasional ‘fuck’ feels appropriate). While not as poetically generous or ornate as Shakespeare’s writing, Marlowe’s strength lies in his dramatic plotting and the execution of his narratives: stage-time is not wasted on soliloquising or debating the existential quandary of the protagonist; instead, Marlowe barrels through from one moment to the next, and if one character vows to kill another in one scene, no more than two scenes later that character will be dead. In Edward II, Marlowe shows us a king with his lover Gaveston as his newly-appointed Lord Chamberlain, and we watch as the rest of the court scheme, plot, and contrive to bring down Gaveston and, eventually, Edward.
While Karabelas’ cast are adequately strong, there is no show-making performance here, except for perhaps Julian Garner’s Edward II. At times indignant, naïve, and iron-willed and, eventually, helpless, he shows us the image of a king whose choices have ruined him and his country, and for whom death is a welcome and unavoidable release. Michael Whalley’s Gaveston, Edward’s lover, is youthful and at times naïve, but wary of the court’s talk behind mostly-closed doors; it is a neat touch to have Whalley also play Lightborn, Edward’s gaoler and executioner. Richard Hilliar and James Lugton are reliably strong as Lancaster and Mortimer, respectively, but Angela Bauer’s Kent – Edward II’s sister (usually brother), and the audience’s conscience throughout the play – leaves us feeling unmoved by Mortimer’s machinations.
Despite a few eloquent instances of stagecraft, Karabelas’ production is strong and adequate, but lacks the verve and panache which is needed to make Marlowe storm and rage against the dying of the light. While there are a few too many (unconscious?) nods to Derek Jarman’s 1992 film, what comes through strongest is Marlowe’s language, the forceful drive of the narrative, and its unwavering anger at the lack of compassion or fellow feeling towards those perceived as other to the status quo.