Director Joe Hill-Gibbins made his debut at the National Theatre last night with a radical version of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. He’s the King whose murder with a red hot poker makes him the medieval monarch schoolboys remember. This crazy collage of show revels in incongruous touches, using our current National anthem and the hokey cokey in its soundtrack, and wrenches the personal from an explicitly political text. Best of all, it boasts a lead performance from John Heffernan that must not be missed.
Hill-Gibbins’ inventive staging is bracing – a bag of tricks that updates Marlowe with a defiantly energetic touch. Projecting live films onto the walls, including scenes in an inside-out room (reminiscent of a Rachel Whiteread sculpture) that the audience cannot see into, gives a sense of intimacy and conspiracy. There are touches that will ruffle feathers – brash, bold and sexy – including the longest snog I’ve seen on a stage for a while. But the production is never obtuse; the court and its conflicts are consistently presented as a game played by debauched egoists.
The “base, leaden Earls” are deliberately overblown, outraged by the explicitness of Edward’s love for his minion Gaveston rather than questions of social status. Two roles, transformed into female parts, stand out, with Kirsty Bushell as Kent and Penny Layden as Pembroke, displaying sympathy toward the King that injects pathos. The biggest problem is for Edward’s wife Isabella. Vanessa Kirby proclaims her love for the King, between drags of her fag and swigs of bolly, well enough, but the production focuses so much on Edward’s homosexuality that it denies tension between the two of them.
Gaveston, the “ruin of the realm”, is performed by Kyle Soller with magnificent dynamism – when he kneels to the King it’s as if he’s about to start a race. In Soller’s performance the morbid playfulness of the production genuinely unnerves. But the suffering is all Edward’s and the scenes of his torture, filmed and projected throughout the final act, makes this a gruelling role that establishes Heffernan as an important actor. Despite the manic action around him, Heffernan has the power to create a stillness and deliver Marlowe’s poetry magnificently.
Until 26 October 2013
Photo by Manuel Harlan
Written 5 September 2013 for The London Magazine