Review: Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, at the Olivier Stage, National Theatre

John Heffernan as Edward II - Photo Johan Persson

John Heffernan as Edward II – Photo Johan Persson

A play by a young playwright, a young director and a young cast. No, it’s not a National Youth Theatre production in collaboration with the National Theatre – although you should definitely check those out – but Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II performed at the Olivier stage. It’s a five hundred year old play but Marlowe died at 29, most of the actors in the company are in their late twenties and director Joe Hill-Gibbins is 36. The Olivier as a rowdy youth club? You bet, and so much more.

The play is the story of Edward II, King of England, who probably prefers the embrace of his lover Gaveston to ruling England, but rule he must. The power struggles around him involve his wife Isabella, her lover Mortimer, his underage son Edward, his sister Kent, the Barons and the Church. Needless to say it doesn’t end well.

The production spills with energy, some times literally: the huge Olivier stage proves inadequate at times and the action is pushed to the auditorium. Emotions and language have a raw animalistic friction. Physical hunger underpins all actions, whether it’s drive for power, sex or love.

John Heffernan and Kyle Soller in rehearsal. Photo Johan Persson

John Heffernan and Kyle Soller in rehearsal. Photo Johan Persson

Since I saw him in The Habbit of Art four years ago, I never hid my delight in the performances of John Heffernan  A repeat scene stealer, he has a rare talent of portraying the human condition as a tightrope act between the ridiculous and the tragic. His Edward II is often pathetic in his desire to be loved, but palm-sweating tragic when imprisoned and executed. His abdication scene is profoundly touching with the character on the precipice of tragedy but also innocent wisdom. After that, his annihilation is not only a political necessity, it seals shut the dark moral universe of the story.

Kyle Soller’s Gaveston balances punk insolence with sensuality that makes total sense of the king’s infatuation. It’s a stroke of genius that he also plays Lightborn where punk behaviour turns sinister and the ghost of love turns murderous. Vanessa Kirby as Isabella has a nice line in petulant vanity and the rest of the cast matches them with universally strong performances: stand outs are Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s increasingly disturbed Mortimer and Alex Beckett’s casually efficient Lancaster.

The staging boldly combines disparate elements: camera work against live performance, exposed backstage areas as battlegrounds, small spaces cramped against the vastness of the stage. By and large, these choices work and create a world of theatrical artifice steeped in real raw emotion.

A production not merely good or bad, but vital and made of life.

P.S. If you have a ticket for seat M10, you are in for a special treat. You might want to chat to audience members around you before the performance.

Head over to revstan’s blog to read her review.

Update 28/10/2013: I have written a blog post about the rich parallels between this production and Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II, both of which I loved.

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