Arts: The higher the platforms, the harder the fall

Theatre: THE LIFE OF EDWARD II OF ENGLAND, RIVERSIDE STUDIOS, LONDON
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The Independent Culture
EDWARD II's steep decline from glittering sybaritic sodomite to the poor, bare, forked animal who meets his grisly end in the sewers of the Tower of London has never been charted more graphically than in this exhilarating Cherub Company production, which tackles the Brecht adaptation of Marlowe.

Clad in a gold puffball skirt and precipitous platform heels, Mariano Caligaris's monarch begins as the last word in painted outre transvestism, dancing crotch to crotch with Christopher Gunning's Gaveston, a lean, insolently edible bit of rough who emerges here as a prototype of Orton's Mr Sloane. Vainly quavering a liturgical song as buckets of filth are chucked over him from on high, Caligaris's king ends as a stark naked, shivering mite who lays himself vulnerable to the erotic nursing of his murderer.

Brecht's adaptation is a systematic denial that there was any seamless tragic inevitability to this 19-year process. History is created by specific, often petty and unrecorded choices, as he illustrates in the play where it is claimed that the Trojan war, fought over a whore, erupted in an alehouse on the waterfront where a Greek bloodied a man's nose and pretended he was doing it for Helen. Because of that, Hector died in the blood of his genitals and the world was consoled with the Iliad.

This clinical and ironic angle on history as a manufactured business, full of botched shots and missed alternatives, is mordantly communicated here. The production presents the play as a sort of Expressionist fairground attraction, replete with whirly platform stage, sardonically incongruous dance- band tunes, and a chorus of frock-coated bourgeois barons who could have stepped from the canvases of Dix or Grosz and are supplemented by puppets of themselves. Performed with hard-edged flair and fluency, it is a show that collapses the division between backstage and onstage. Instead of Brechtian captions, cast members race to the front to deliver droll historical time-checks to the implacable beat of a drum.

It's a staging that succeeds in offering colliding perspectives on Edward - a character who achieves belated humanity even as his persistent refusal to abdicate (a switch from the Marlowe) plunges England into a prolonged political crisis and the threat of foreign invasion. On the equivocations of power, the production is, throughout, very witty. For example, the mitre of the Bishop of Winchester is bifurcated and folds over itself, like a rabbit's ears cocked to pick up sounds from opposite directions. This bet-hedging headgear is fitting for a cleric who claims that the Church is always on the side of God and that God is always, well, on the side of the winner.

I last saw this play in an extraordinary bilingual event in Paris where English and French actors performed, in turn, a drastically edited version, like some highbrow Jeux Sans Frontieres. It is good now to experience a fuller account in a show which makes a case that this financially threatened company deserves funding to secure its survival.

Paul Taylor

To 17 Jan. Booking: 0181-741 2255

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