Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Edward II

Christopher Marlowe
Royal Exchange, Manchester
31 August 2011 to 01 October 2011

The 1950s currently seem the hot decade for drama, as celebrated in either TV’s Mad Men or The Hour.

Even so it might appear a big ask to transfer Christopher Marlowe’s blood-soaked medieval tragedy many hundreds of  years forward to a time when Britons were being assured they had never had it so good.

Edward II was Marlowe’s colourful critique of an especially dark time in British history, brought to a close with a red-hot poker in that most horrific act of regicide.

And yet the parallels with the first decade of a second Elizabethan age extend beyond a Coronation and a tottering Empire.

Director Toby Frow is unambiguous in his treatment of Edward’s love for Piers Gaveston, and the latter’s treatment by a cruelly-disapproving Establishment – the strongest analogy to a homophobic 1950s Britain.

The players act out a chess match of political and sexual intrigue with a stunted and remote King, a scheming Queen, and any number of Bishops and Knights shifting expediently between black and white squares.

It all makes for a clear, concise and fast-paced thriller enhanced by designer Ben Stones’s spare and split-level staging.

He even pitches up a jazz club outside the theatre to immerse audiences in the 1950s mood in a production that seldom misses a note.

Chris New’s Edward is a vain and vacillating monarch, resembling a much later namesake in the way in which he abdicated both power and reason for the sake of love.

Samuel Collings is Gaveston, the louche young lover with more than a nod towards Marlon Brando. At one point the two men kick back and watch The Wild One on a cinema screen.

Collings also doubles up as the Lucifer figure of Lightborn who administers the king’s fate – “to rid thee of thy life”. It is an icily-sinister cameo.

Reviewer: David Upton


Comment by Alan Hulme

Mm, not a patch on the Nicholas Hytner-directed staging, with Ian McDiarmid and Michael Grandage in this same space back in 1986.

If anything, this one makes things too clear and exposes what a repetitive first few scenes Marlowe wrote, setting up the Edward-Gaveston relationship to have it knocked down then built up again and knocked down again...

Mrs H put her finger on part of the problem when she declared at the interval that for the plot to work Gaveston needs to be good looking. 

Comment by Paul Genty

I must say I was pretty disappointed with this one - and yes, I too vividly remember the Hytner/McDiarmid version even though it was 20 years ago; it was that good.

This one really did expose the flaws in the play, and made the king's pain in the late stages seem rather like whingeing - even though Chris New's performance was otherwise pretty strong.