By Christopher Marlowe
Directed by Gale Edwards
Produced by Shakespeare Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
You last saw him in Braveheart, the mewling, effeminate princeling, the scorned son of the ferocious King, Edward I Longshanks. In Marlowe’s Edward II, now playing in rep with Tamburlaine at the Shakespeare Theatre’s new Harman Hall, Wallace Acton imbues his Edward with precisely the same heart and soul, without all the silly, stereotypical gestures. The result is a surprisingly satisfactory meditation on the failure of power, rendered movingly and occasionally spectacularly by Gale Edwards’ over-the-top staging.
Wise kings understand that the secret of power is to bargain for consent while appearing to compel it. England’s greatest monarchs to that time, including Henry II and Edward I, understood this principal; their sons, John and Edward II, did not, and when they pushed what they thought were the same buttons they were amazed to find they didn’t work. This is not the lesson of Edward II, it is the lesson of history, and Marlowe’s great gift to us is that he records it accurately. The great gift which this production gives us is that it lays the tragedy plain, in visual language which all of us can understand.
The play opens in the birthing moments of Edward’s reign. His father, the great King, has just died and his peers and generals, dressed in uniforms and eveningwear (Edwards has chosen a WWI-era setting), gather grief-stricken around his casket. Edward stands aloof. His father, his father’s peers (who are now his), his wife and child mean nothing to him. All of English history has boiled down to this single point: his beloved friend, Piers Gaveston (Vayu O’Donnell), having been banished from England by his late father, may now return.
It was not just the old King who wanted Gaveston as far away from England, and his son, as he could send him. All the peers of the realm – Lancaster (Jonathan Earl Peck), Warwick (David McCann), Pembroke (James Denvil), the Archbishop of Canterbury (Scott Jaeck) and especially the fierce and monomaniacal Mortimer (Andrew Long) want him exiled, or dead. Even the King’s own loyalist brother (Jay Whittaker) urges the King not to bring Gaveston back. Why? It was not simply their relationship – England had had homosexual Kings before (certainly William Rufus, and probably Richard I as well) without incident. It was, rather, that Gaveston brought out Edward’s worst qualities – frivolousness, sloth, and a glorious self-indulgence.
Edward II was the first post-Norman King to have absolutely no interest in the responsibilities of rule. The real Edward had an intense interest in woodworking and other crafts, and would ignore affairs of state to tend to his amusements. Director Edwards here neatly knits up the King’s obsessive relationship with Gaveston to his frivolity by having Gaveston serve as a sort of master of ceremonies to an all-male revue; the dancers frolic and cavort while Gaveston and the King canoodle on the throne. When the peers, led by Mortimer, recite the low estate to which the Kingdom has fallen (“…Libels are cast against thee inthe street…The northern borders, seeing the houses burnt…Curse the name of thee and Gaveston…”) it contrasts gravely with Edward’s frivolity, and when Edward gives a cavalier response, it sounds hollow, stupid and dangerous.
Edward II is an account of an English King’s relentless descent from monarch to prisoner, and from thus to death. The result is a matter of historical record. Edward’s ignored and mistreated bride (Deanne Lorette) manages to deter the peers briefly in a forlorn effort to win the King’s affection. When it fails – Edward is clearly besotted with Gaveston – she throws her husband over for Mortimer, and the King’s fate is sealed. Neither Marlowe nor the production shies away from the cause of Edward’s death, in which a professional assassin (an absolutely fabulous James Konicek) sticks a hot poker where a hot poker should never be stuck.
Konicek’s wonderful performance is typical of something director Edwards elicits throughout the production: excellent work in the smaller roles. Marlowe, a superb wordsmith, is not the equal of Shakespeare in character development, and the principal characters are obliged to leave the stage no wiser or better than they entered it. Edwards compensates by sharpening and sweetening the portrayals of characters who are on stage only briefly. In particular, two slimy allies of Mortimer, whose job it is to torture the King (Christopher Marino and Blake DeLong, respectively), an old general, loyal to the King (David Emerson Toney, as good as I’ve ever seen him), a sly Belgian nobleman (the great Floyd King), Jaeck as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Mortimer’s supporting noblemen turn in excellent performances.
Edwards also takes full advantage of the new theater’s capacity, moving set pieces in from the most unexpected places while blanketing us with orchestral sound. Some of her effects are wonderfully subtle; her peers all seem to be at least eight inches taller than Edward and his Court, and it allows us to see where the power really is.
Marlowe gives Edward only one note – a childish self-absorption – and Acton plays it dutifully, giving it as much range and variance as the text allows. Edward is full of giggling delight when he is permitted to be with Gaveston, and full of self-pity when he is not. Acton is not boring in the role but he does not break out of its limitations; I’m not sure anyone could. O’Donnell as Gaveston carries the weight of Edwards’ innovations, and does so very well. When Edwards aims over the top – and she does so occasionally – it is generally O’Donnell who must make it work, and he does. (When he appears in angel wings after his death to dance with Edward, it could be a comic moment in less skilled hands. Here it is moving, and almost dignified.)
Long’s Mortimer is a man who feels a personal wound from Edward; where the other peers respond to the insult of a King who ignores affairs of State, Mortimer’s rage frequently veers out of control, and perilously close to foot-stomping territory. It is an entirely valid interpretation of the text, but it makes him appear to be a little less dangerous.
As the two change agents, Isabella and brother Kent, Lorette and Whittaker give full satisfaction. Isabella begins as a sympathetic character, but as she learns the uses of duplicity from Mortimer she becomes more extreme than he. Lorette is able to create a single unified character who can be both people. Whittaker has a less consistently developed character with which to work, but he does a good job of showing Kent’s indecision and remorse.
As we move through Shakespeare Theatre’s Marlowe Festival, one thing is clear: despite Marlowe’s gifts, he is no Shakespeare. Perhaps if he had been permitted to live beyond the age of29, he might have developed some of the Bard’s richness and complexity. But where a Director fully understands both the play and the history it represents and has access to the immense technical resources of a theater like Shakespeare’s new facility (notwithstanding a fifteen-minute breakdown at the start of the play, Phillip Scott Peglow’s sound was magnificent), she can create a play worthy of the space. Edwards has, and Edward II is.
Running Time: 2.35 with one intermission.
Where: Shakespeare Theatre at Harmon Hall, 610 F Street NW.
When: Tuesdays at 7.30 p.m.: Nov. 20, and Dec. 4 and 18; Wednesday at noon Jan. 2; Wednesdays at 7.30 p.m.: Nov. 21, Dec. 5 and 19, and Jan. 2; Thursdays at 8 p.m., Nov. 15 and 29, Dec. 13 and Jan. 3; Friday at 2 p.m. Dec. 28; Fridays at 8 p.m. Nov. 16 and 30, and Dec. 14 and 28; Saturdays at 2 p.m. on Nov. 10 and 17 and Dec. 1 and 29; Saturdays at 8 p.m. Nov. 10 and 24, Dec. 8 and 22, and Jan. 5; Sundays at 2 p.m. Nov. 25, Dec. 9 and 23 and Jan. 6; Sundays at 7.30 p.m. Nov. 18, and Dec. 2, 16 and 30.
Tickets: $23.50 — $79.75.
Information: 202.547.1122 or visit the website.
Editor’s note: Shakespeare Theatre’s Marlowe Mini-Festival includes Marlowe’s Tamburlaine, running in repertory with Edward II, Rorschach Theatre’s lusty life and times of the author, Kit Marlowe, among a host of Marlowe celebrations.