Friday, October 3, 2014

Edward II by Christopher Marlowe, Venture Wolf Productions, London Theatre.

"All they that love not Tobacco and Boys are fools". 

Gay is the word. Christopher Marlowe found a muse in man's love for man, and infused it in much of his work - particularly in the erotic epyllion, Hero and Leander. Turning over the weighty pages of Holinshed's Chronicles, the twenty something Christopher Marlowe chose Edward II's charged relationship with low-born Gaveston for dramatisation into one of England's first fully realised History plays - a genre that Shakespeare would adopt and make his own. 

Edward II is a pacy, racy, roller coaster of a ride, which establishes its theme in Gaveston's first delighted words - of male love and loyalty taken to such heights that it causes civil war, and the eventual downfall of a king. 

As with his earlier play, the Massacre at Paris, here is a drama in which plot takes precedence over language, without the psychological investigations and existential hand-wringing characteristic of Marlowe's illustrious contemporary. From the clearly chipped characters and fast paced plot, you get the feeling that Marlowe was an excitable, direct sort of character - just the type to get himself embroiled in a squabble in Deptford in May 1593. He never saw his thirties. 

Edward II was his final drama, published shortly after his death. It's a moody, antagonistic work - a play looking for trouble - a libertine fuck you to mainstream, respectable, puritan England. 

Shakespeare may have watched the play with mixed feelings. Marlowe had been the darling of the Oxbridge literati classes - the insider's outsider. Shakespeare meanwhile had no university education - he wanted to be an outsider, accepted by the insiders. How could he out-radical Marlowe, while keeping the punters packed in?  The anything-goes Edward II freed things up for Shakespeare, and encouraged the bard to push boundaries just as far. Richard II, penned shortly afterwards, resonated with variations on Marlowe's sexual politics. 

Edward II is a serious, adult work, and I feared the worst as I entered the subterranean London Theatre in New Cross. to be greeted by enthusiastic young actors in 1920s gear, doing the flap, the Charleston and getting up to the kind of pre-show japes one encounters in undergrad productions. My fears, however, couldn't have been more misplaced. Once the silliness had subsided, Venture Wolf  put on an earnest and thoughtfully wrought production that allowed the darker ambiguities of the play to surface. Imaginatively directed by Paul Vitty, this was a fast paced, creative rendering which was hugely entertaining. 

Henry Winterbottom played the demanding role of the King, as petulant, spoilt and inflexible. It was a fine rendering of an unappealing character, which showed scope and promise. Ramzi Dehani played the King's lover and ruin, Gaveston, with a sly coolness - except where it came to his encounters with the King, when Dehani displayed a warmth and commitment that glowed. Emma Gonella played a pitch perfect Queen Isabella, with grace, beauty and wit. All queens should be like that. Turan Duncan was terrific as the heroic usurper, quickly corrupted by power. 

Of the other performances, James Chadurn played a marvellously entertaining, Churchillian Warwick - a commendably restrained performance, in that the Stentorian lines could easily have crossed into parody or irony. Will Barrett was convincing as the young  schoolboy prince, who quickly grows up to be an avenging successor; and Pippa Caddick was a joy to behold, playing the complex Baldock with charisma and subtlety. There were 17 people involved in the cast, however, and all played their parts well. 

Bravo to Venture Wolf for treating Marlowe's moody masterpiece with the seriousness it deserves. There are laughs aplenty to be had in the punnery and ironies of other Early Modern plays. Not Edward II, however. Marlowe meant this one - and so did this marvellous troupe of actors. Hats off to you all.