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Samuel Collings (left) as Piers Gaveston and Chris New as King Edward II. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe

Performed at Royal Exchange Theatre, directed by Toby Frow and designed by Ben Stones

Reviewed by Charlotte Starkey September 2011


Five weeks after the murder of Christopher Marlowe, on the evening of 30th May 1593 in Deptford, the text of Edward II was entered in the Stationer’s Register, as required by law, and it has been argued that the play itself was in existence as early as 1591 – a date recently argued for some of Shakespeare’s English history plays, too. Marlowe dramatizes the brief reign and downfall of a monarch whose dates (1284 – 1327) mark a fractious period in England with nobles excluded from power and decision-making, a weak king reliant upon favourites, civil war and a wife, Isabella, participating in the plot against her husband. Material like this was the stuff of playwrights such as Shakespeare and would continue to be so in Shakespeare’s ‘Henriad’ (Henry IV, Part One and Two, and Henry V), Richard II (so close in theme and structure to Edward II) and Richard III.


There was much in such stories from England’s post-Conquest history to mirror the dangerous sixteenth century Tudor London world, and particularly the circles of power, with which Marlowe was familiar, a world of ambition, time-serving, threat and counter-threat, betrayal and double-dealing at the very heart of government with executioners such as Topcliffe to add horror to the lives of many. Four years before the first appearance of Edward II Mary Queen of Scots, tried for treason, was beheaded and Marlowe himself in the same year (1587) had to rely on the Privy Council to gain his Cambridge M.A. after failing to keep term because he was on ‘government business’, we are informed cryptically.


The Royal Exchange production of Edward II shifts this complex web to the 1950s of the Parisian Mars Club, a popular jazz haunt now gone, and then to an English monarchy with costumes and couture of a 1950s imagined court circle. The cover of the programme itself just suggests the old post World War Two Ration Book with its relatively unadorned utilitarian cover, and the production is crossing many historical routes to bring Marlowe’s play to Manchester. The two main locations figure the key polarities of the play, the dilettante playboy homosexual world of Edward with his favourite Gaveston, shrouded in the mood music of the late-night jazz jamming (composed by Richard Hammarton), and the impossible imposition of this ethos on the ‘gentleman’s club’ that is the court world of the original Plantagenet London to become, in this production, a mix of peers, senior civil servants and aspirational political eunuchs. The programme timeline sets a tone for the dour adult world of England in the 1950s, emphasising a number of homophobic legal cases connecting with Edward’s own problematic relationship with the court over which he rules. Before the interval, the almost deliberate frivolity of Edward presents a figure completely isolated and politically emasculated within an unimaginative scheming court circle which is so important to Marlowe’s portrayal of Edward.

Samuel Collings (left) as Piers Gaveston and Chris New as King Edward II. Photo by Jonathan Keenan.Edward II (Chris New) grows in stature as the play moves from his deliberately flippant, carefree, defiant flaunting of Gaveston (Samuel Collings) before the interval into the darker moods of the second half. He is particularly powerful as he plays tragically with the abdication paper which becomes his paper crown and ultimately his death warrant, before relinquishing what has hitherto been his delusional symbol of power. The murder of Edward left the audience in its own deathly silence as the event was enacted. It crystallised a central tension in Marlowe’s text: between the pathetic figure of a man totally unfit to govern, surrounded by traitors and sycophants, and a lonely, tragic human being with no one to save him. Marlowe’s title defines the point: The troublesome raigne and lamentable death of Edward the second, King of England…  As Edward contemplates and foreshadows in the second part his own tragic ending, Chris New as Edward provides an intensely moving figure of a condemned man, building a momentum within his lines to create a sense of deepening concern (one felt even this in the total silence of the audience) regarding an inevitability that is one of the most harrowing on any stage.

In a sense this enabled the casting to subdue other figures who play, in different ways, a subordinate role to this personal tragedy. The sight of a hooded Edward suffering waterboarding, with echoes of recent institutionalised atrocities, reinforced how powerfully this and other of Elizabethan plays straddle centuries with insights into the perennial deviations with which power brokers operate for their own ends. In Marlowe’s text Edward is ‘sandwiched’ between a board and a featherbed (a variant of the fourteenth century punishment of peine fort et dure): Margaret Clitheroe had been executed at York with weights placed upon a board over her body arched with a stone in the middle of her recumbent spine just five years before the writing of Edward II.

It is a production which pays especial attention to careful detail. The dark grey stone floor with its raised sections (inspired by a visit to Westminster Abbey, the programme tells us) was a clever touch of antiquity that equally provided the cell into which Edward would be plunged, Faustus-like. Lightborn, appearing briefly at the beginning, significantly at the ending, is chillingly gentle. ‘One born of light’ (Lucifer, the bearer of light, is to appear in Dr Faustus, of course) is the harbinger of death; he nurses the fallen king, the Edward bereft of power, even as he kills Edward the terrified, desolate man. It is testimony to Samuel Collings and the casting that he plays two key roles, Gaveston the source of Edward’s downfall as king and Lightborn the bearer of death, with a power that raises important questions about the play’s perception of Edward himself, of the price he had to pay for being who he was in a world where he was expected to be someone else. If this was intended to introduce more than a useful ‘doubling’, it was an inspired piece of casting suggesting many ambiguities that echo the complexities within the original text.

Marlowe’s title also includes a second strand to the play’s concern …with the tragicall fall of proud Mortimer. Mortimer (Jolyon Coy) has a difficult role, like all the ‘lords’ and attendants. Once an Elizabethan play is transposed into any ‘modern’ context quite simply the dress, the accoutrements, lack the grandeur, opulence, theatricality, of the Elizabethan stage (this was true of Edward, too), until the scene when all appear in the gorgeous court regalia before the interval. Edward’s first appearance in his gold braid and emblazoned uniform is to contrast sharply with his stripped figure at his ending. At one point after the interval, the guardians in white suggest momentarily a vision of a mental hospital. Mortimer grows in stature as the schemer, not quite the Machiavellian but a self-server matched by the growing confidence of Isabella (Emma Cuniffe). This can be a difficult role maintained here with a balance between her justified grievance as a wife abandoned and another scheming manipulator encumbered by a rather bad press throughout history. It is a timely reminder of the double-dealing when her son, the young King Edward III, banishes his own mother. Edward II’s young son (the second Edward in the play) acted with an amazing maturity, control and confidence that matched his role as the prince regent. In the end it is a young boy who is the only figure on stage with any kind of control, of himself and of the future of his country.

On a final note, Edward is present on stage for much of the second part of the performance whilst a prisoner, even when the action moves back to court with its intrigue and ambitions, a bowed, shackled dethroned king crumpled centre stage whilst the action continues, a potent visual symbol of the two sides of this tragedy: two Edwards within the one human being, the king, the man. Edward powerfully poses a question that needs no response in this portrait of catastrophe and which reminds us just how great a poet Marlowe was:

“But what are kings when regiment is gone
But perfect shadows in a sunshine day?” (V,  i,  26-7).

The beauty of the paradox within that image belies the horror of Edward’s death. This is a tragedy of a king, a queen, a country, a family, a man and a boy. This production at different moments gave Edward all these roles and, as in Marlowe’s text, Edward simply could neither play nor resolve them all. Marlowe himself played a few and had the same problem and, tragically, an equally fateful, early demise.


Thoroughly recommended – a production that will grow and linger: a testimony to much thought, sensitivity and insight brought into the intimacy that the stage and auditorium of the Exchange affords.


Production at The Royal Exchange is until 8th October 2011.

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