Christopher Marlowe’s 1593 political thriller Edward II brings to light the complexities of human nature by exploring how these intricacies play out in the political realm. This historical tragedy brings into question the boundaries between the personal and the political; a perennial concern that is pertinent to society today.
Sport for Jove’s production, directed by Terry Karabelas, effectively showcases the tense movement of Marlowe’s writing and creates a gripping, unsettling portrait of the human condition.
Historically, Edward II tends to be viewed as a weak and unsuccessful medieval leader in both court battlefield due to his military failures, and his oppressive regimes in his later years. Marlowe’s tragedy, however, portrays Edward as a flawed human unable to separate his passions from his politics – two things that become muddled as he is overtaken by adoration for his lover Gaveston. Edward’s nobles despise Gaveston (and Gaveston’s influence over the King), and after their attempts to reason with and manipulate the monarch fail, they take violent action that sends the show into a fast paced, shocking thriller.
Julian Garner’s Edward II is strong willed and confident, yet with a vulnerability that allows him to be manipulated by his barons and consumed by desire for his lover. Garner’s Edward adores his conceited and aloof lover Gaveston; their relationship is passionate and volatile, with moments of great tenderness and warmth. Michael Whalley’s Gaveston is arrogant and intense; his love for Edward seems slightly disingenuous.
The rest of the cast are well versed in handling a show of such pace and darkness. The barons (James Lugton as Mortimer, Richard Hilliar as Lancaster and Belinda Hoare as Warwick) seem driven by a desire for justice near the play’s commencement, and the audience is led to hope for their triumph. Yet as the show progresses Marlowe’s writing, under Karabelas’ dark direction, and the actors’ powerful and callous portrayals of the nobles, reveals the deceit and ferocity of the political machinations within the court.
All the characters have redemptive moments where we are privy to their capacity for love and softness, yet ultimately these moments are quickly dissolved under the merciless, self-driven politics that define the court. This is a stark reflection of the darkness of human nature. Whilst this thriller is engrossing from beginning to end, at times it feels difficult to connect and care about the characters’ plight and downfall due to their self-serving cold-heartedness.
However, the King’s demise is shocking to watch, and though most of the show is spent unsympathetic towards Edward, his appalling treatment under the hands of Lugton’s ruthless Mortimer begs our pity. Edward is stripped of his rights and dignity, and Garner portrays a truly broken man in his final scenes. His death, although brutal and alarming, comes as almost a relief to both Edward and the audience as his blatant misery is brought to an end.
Alicia Clements’ set design is simple yet effective as two large boxes serve as the main props, used to swiftly transition between scenes and create new locations. This enhances the swift pace of Marlowe’s writing. Paired with Ross Graham’s stark lighting design, which often has the actors side lit, or in partial darkness at times, Clements’ set effectively echoes the sombre nature of this tragedy.
David Stalley’s sound design is similarly stripped back, with occasional moments of angelic choral backings that effectively enhance the tension of the piece. Melanie Liertz’ costume design combines modernity with elements of archetypical 16th century costuming, to provide a provocative insight on the play and its continuing relevance. Interestingly, as Edward aligns himself with the rebels, his costuming transitions from traditional to more modern and casual, like the rebels.
The play is bookended by a scene in which the court declare ‘the king is dead, long live the king’, highlighting the cyclicality of history and emphasising the destruction caused by a blurred distinction between the personal and the political.
What happens when desire and power are intertwined? This production of Marlowe’s Edward II doesn’t answer these questions but it provokes further thought and discussion and provides an intentionally ambiguous insight into the human condition.