Edward II, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester
It's not often that you encounter one of Gaveston's entourage, already in character, half an hour before the curtain call in a queue at the bar. But one of the smartest tricks of Toby Frow's production of Edward II, which opens in 1950s France, is the re-creation of the Parisian Mars jazz club for his audience to drink in the ambiance before they are transported to it. There are no half measures: the drummer, saxophonist and double-bass player performing a jazz gig at 7pm turn out to be players half an hour later. The casting director was looking for actors equal to a demanding musical repertoire.
Frow selected the 1950s for Marlowe's exploration of the gay king because it was a world which was beginning to explore homosexuality. The production initially sizzles with the sexuality of a gyrating Gaveston (Samuel Collings) – eye shadow, tight jeans and six pack, like some prototype Marc Almond – and the tension he brings from the Mars club to the stiff, stuffy English court. Edward's passion is so great that he just cannot keep it buttoned up in the name of realpolitik. The early scenes capture excellently the collision of courts, as London recoils queasily from the kisses. It's not romance we see in Collings's excellent Gaveston; there's a complexity and malevolence about him. Nothing is left to the imagination when he anticipates "those parts that men delight to see."
Edward's giddy capitulation to all of this makes it hard to find too much blame in Edward's Queen Isabella (Emma Cunniffe) and the Machiavellian Mortimer (Jolyon Coy) seems to have fairly good grounds for his machinations against the king. Their characters do not crackle with the same tensions and indecisions. We are left wanting more malevolence in their plotting.
But as the play's tone darkens, there is a remarkable finale. Edward's torture, in jump suit and hood, up to his knees in water, carries echoes of 21st-century rendition. Transfixing, also, is the play's climactic death scene. The executioner is Collings, who has swapped the Gaveston role for that of an eerie, chilling Lightborn. Look out for a remarkable piece of theatrics, which includes the dead Edward lying face down in water. The jazz theme ebbs away too quickly, but drink it in while it lasts. Time your arrival for an hour before curtain call and join the cast at the bar.
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