Edward II at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
“Shall I still be haunted thus?” asks King Edward (Tom Stuart) of his rival Mortimer Junior (Jonathan Livingstone). A marker of success for stagings of Marlowe’s gruesome tale is for the audience to leave haunted by the violence and passion on the stage. This production passed the test.
Director Nick Bagnall’s decision to focus on the central characters reduces the confusion of the original and creates the sensation that the action is galloping away towards destruction, but ends with the eerie feeling that the characters who have died continue to haunt the theatre. “Sweet father, here unto they murdered ghost/ I offer up this wicked traitor’s head,” laments Edward III as the audience is left in the near-darkness with the body of Edward II at the front of the stage. If you are not familiar with the play, it’s worth warning you that it is not for the faint-hearted. It begins with the titular king ascending the throne and ends with a parallel scene of his son’s ascension. At the play’s core is the homosexual relationship between King Edward and his favourite, Gaveston (Beru Tessema). To add to the drama, Edward’s queen Isabella (Katie West) is also in the picture, remaining loyal to her husband in the first half of the piece despite his infidelity. By the second half she has joined with the rebellious lords who now seek her spouse’s overthrow. The most infamous moment in the play is the eventual execution of Edward, and without spoiling how this is done, I can say that this production excels at making this shockingly gruesome and realistic.
Yet while the death of the central character is certainly a dramatic feat, Bagnall has succeeded in drawing to the surface the most human element of the story: the love affair between Gaveston and Edward. There is a strong sexual charge between Stuart and Tessema’s interactions, but they also exude tenderness and love. The former excels as Edward II because he does not feel the need to dominate the stage. He delivers his lengthy speeches in the second part with a sincere naturalism rather than dramatic fiery passion, exaggerating the human dimension of his character above the kingly one.
The cast is excellent, with amusing performances from Colin Ryan and Richard Bremmer. It was impressive to see so many parts given to talented women. Annette Badland was ferocious as Mortimer Senior while a personal favourite was Sanchia McCormack’s Sir John Hainault. It was a difficult task for Katie West to portray Queen Isabella, as so often with this play our sympathy goes to Edward rather than his wife. However, the actor managed to convey the strength of her character and had the audience laughing several times.
The historic and intimate candlelit space of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse makes for an incredible theatrical experience. There really couldn’t be a work better suited to the venue than Edward II. The combination of incredible performances, music and a tight production make this an engaging and utterly watchable show – perhaps another favourite of the season.
Photo: Marc Brenner
Edward II is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse from 7th February until 20th April 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.