There's a few months to go yet before Shakespeare's Globe launches its new season, but the last time they mailed out some info they included a flyer for a production of Edward II round the corner, at the archaeological site of the original Rose theatre - the same place where Christopher Marlowe's play was first performed. As the three regular readers know I like Marlowe, and a few years ago the last production of this play I saw introduced me to the beardy charms of Philip Cumbus, so I was happy to give it another go.
In a programme note, director Peter Darney says his friends' reaction to hearing he was working on this was that it's a gay play. He seems to be proving them right as the play opens, with Joseph Bader's disco-bunny of a Gaveston laden with pearls and doing his opening speech to a (too-loud) backing track of dance music. Quite soon though things become less simple and this Edward (Matt Barber - he briefly appeared in Being Human last year as a younger Kemp in flashback) is not let off the hook for the chaos that ensues: Although the lords show disgust at the king's inappropriately-timed public displays of affection towards his male lovers, he does blatantly value his duties of state a lot less than his infatuations with two pretty boys over the course of the play, so you can't entirely blame their homophobia for the way they treat him. Of course, taking that out of the equation means you have to take their excuse for fighting Edward at face value, which still doesn't leave the lords looking too good: Their official problem with Gaveston is that he's too low-born to get powers above their own. But of course if they're so keen on hereditary power, technically they should be right behind Edward as entitled to the throne by divine succession, rather than constantly trying to find ways to get someone more easily-manipulated into his place.
How genuine Edward's relationships are is also questioned, with his reaction to Gaveston's death being muted, what with his new infatuation Spenser (Guy Warren-Thomas - recently the Stag's über-cute Robin Hood) having just hoved into view. The lords dismiss the king's lovers as flatterers, which has a touch of propaganda to it but since Spenser turns up wearing sprayed-on jeans and a top that's not so much low-cut as a frame for his nipples, it's hard to argue he doesn't know exactly what he's doing. In fact none of the characters get much of an easy ride from Darnley and his cast: Zoe Teverson's stocking-and-suspender-clad Queen Isabella is a schemer from the get-go, and even if you do suppose Robert Fitch's Mortimer starts out with decent intentions, he's quickly seduced by power.
There's a few wobbly moments in this speedy production (a combination of text cuts and fast pacing means this runs at just under two hours without interval) but overall it's a decent interpretation of the play. Most of the performances are fine, some very strong - I wasn't sure about Bader, who had his wooden moments but then acquitted himself very well in Gaveston's death scene (he's also ridiculously attractive so you can see why the king went a bit wibbly.) Designer Nicki Martin-Harper's attempts to do costumes on a tight budget are a mixed bag as well - the distressed jeans and t-shirts that are the basis for most of the costumes are a great way of making a little go a long way but some of the cloaks and priestly vestments look painfully home-made. Darney saves the most blatantly homoerotic overtones for last, and Edward's notorious death by red-hot poker up the arse. Expanding on the implicit homophobia of this method of murder, he puts Edward and his killer (Warren-Thomas again) in an overtly sexual position, with Edward begging for death as if it's an extreme form of S&M. It's a risky coup de theatre from the director - I personally found it audacious but there were giggles from other audience members.
So from a shaky start this production finds its feet and is worth a look; at some point one of the larger theatre companies is going to remember this play exists and it'll be interesting to see how well it works on a less intimate stage. In the meantime smaller companies aren't doing a bad job of keeping it alive.
Edward II by Christopher Marlowe is booking until the 5th of March at the Rose Bankside.