Theatre Edward II Octagon, Bolton

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The Independent Culture
Lawrence Till and Kate Raper's new version of Marlowe's Edward II is a fascinating instance of how a repertory theatre can deal with present-day imperatives, labouring in some respects, seizing opportunities in others.

The first imperative is, of course: be resourceful. Since the directors faced a work listing 32 parts with nine actors, clearly there were no auditions to play Rice ap Hwyl. But Till and Raper have minimised this disadvantage by willingly seizing on that other great imperative: be relevant. The production is part of Manchester's current "It's Queer Up North" festival, and, in focusing almost exclusively on the king's love for his "minion" Gaveston, it emphasises the play's vision of gay persecution. Thus Marlowe's quiver of prelates and lords elder and younger can be summarised into the four arms of repression: church, army, police and government.

These are all clearly our contemporaries and here relevance merges into the third imperative: have an arresting, popular style that embracesimage and music. Some of the eclectic effects here are neat visual puns. For example, when Gaveston showers, he makes a sarong from the Union Jack. Using torch songs to underscore his first sensual encounters with Edward enhances the fragile delicacy of their affair, but these soon pall into heavy-handed irony or mere interludes. The violence, however, will satisfy any multiplex groundling, especially the stunningly horrifying moment when John Griffin, as the police chief, breaks Gaveston's neck.

It would be easy to pick some quarrel with this production. Does governance really have no values worthy to be balanced against the lovers' liberty to do "what thy heart affects or fancy likes"? What of "the lame and poor groaning at the gate"? But Marlowe's play is prolix and repetitive and the directors' approach does fashion a decisive and urgent, if partial, interpretation.

Given this, success finally rests upon the lovers. Raymond Coulthard, who could easily command the golden glamour of royalty, keeps Edward as virtually a little boy - gentle, naive, his court-cum-bathhouse-cum-gym a quasi-nursery. He gives a careful, intelligently spoken performance. Joseph Jones is suitably lightsome as Gaveston but nothing in their scenes as lovers is as riveting as the coup which has him return to Edward as his murderer in a fine scene of tenderness and menace. The last moments are yet more surprising, for Edward expires not by the infamous poker but in his lover / murderer's arms beneath a shower of petalled blood: an audacious, beautiful if dramatically dubious tableau.

To 25 May. Booking: 01204 520661