Theatre review: Edward II, Olivier, National Theatre, London

 

Director Joe Hill-Gibbins can’t seem to decide quite what he wants his production (part of the Travelex season) of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II to be - or indeed when.

There are courtly gowns, animal-headed armour and leather jerkins alongside skinny jeans, bomber jackets and gold lame. People smoke, swig champagne, make telephone jokes. Lizzie Clachan’s set is theatrically knowing: behind a raised throne, we see backstage - lighting rig, prop tables. Further Brechtian touches include explanatory scene titles on large screens, also used for live-streaming action from wobbly hand-held cameras, relaying clandestine close-ups or off-stage - even outdoors - action. It’s all very droll, but occasionally distracting. And certainly, hard to see how it serves the play: the arch tone of the first half deprives the second of pathos.

Fortunately, Marlowe’s tragedy of a foolish monarch who angers nobles through his excessive generosity to his low-born lover Gaveston is well-served by its cast. John Heffernan’s Edward is a foppish, floppy, barefoot ruler, so giddy on love he’s like a kid in a sweatshop with a new best friend and the key to the stock cupboard. He also descends into petulant despair, and this childish capriciousness defines the role, ultimately leaving him a moving, bewildered little-boy-lost. Kyle Soller is magnetic as a spiky, snickering, street-smart Gaveston; violence is near the surface, in a nice contrast to Edward's soppy sentimentality. We never quite trust his hedonistic love, though (a doubt played on with some effective, nasty double casting).

Hell hath no fury etc, and Edward’s rejected Queen, Isabella, is played by Vanessa Kirby with a sarcastic scornfulness all of her own. Kirby is luminously watchable, but also brings out what a performer Isabella is - silkily manipulative, turning on charm, sex, or ferocity as needed - in a play that is much to do with dissembling. Less successful is having their son played by an adult woman (Bettrys Jones) in a school blazer; it’s grotesquely comic when he clings to the slight Kirby, but robs the concluding moments of the play of force.

When not on video, the cast’s verse speaking is clear and coherent; movement, sadly, is not. The grumbling nobles seem poorly served - in early scenes they stand awkwardly static; Gaveston’s description of “base leaden earls” needn’t be taken so literally. Battles involve brief choreographed sequences and the cast actually shouting “alarum”. They’re scrappy and hasty, victories seeming too easy, again suggesting Hill-Gibbins doesn’t quite have faith in his vision.

To 26 Oct; 020 7452 3000

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