Edward II, Olivier Theatre, 5 September 2013
The first character to speak in this production was the set. A yellow stepped dais stood amidst a yellow carpet downstage, while behind it was a plywood box room constructed so that its inside was audience-ready and its unpainted surfaces and mechanisms were on the outside.
On the stage left side of the dais was a table adorned with props, behind that was an electric keyboard at which a pianist (Sam Cable) eventually sat to play harpsichord music in whose intervals some early arrivers dutifully clapped. Near to the keyboard, a Henry vacuum cleaner smirked out at the audience and was eventually used by one of the black-clad stage crew to give the yellow carpet around the dais a final once-over before the performance begun.
Behind the box room, the set of the National’s Othello could be glimpsed in the distance. Just before curtain up, the rear of the set was closed off with curtains behind an array of heraldic banners which formed a backdrop.
The unconventional set, music and vacuuming all spoke to tell us that we were not about to watch a dry historical re-enactment.
Areas of bare white concrete either side of the proscenium were used as projection screens throughout the production.
Right at the start a silent countdown of images of British monarchs took us from Elizabeth II back to Edward II. This deliberate historical positioning suggested that we were being taken back in time, an idea immediately complicated by the extra-textual staging of Edward II’s coronation.
A gold curtain descended behind the carpeted dais and Edward (John Heffernan) sat stiffly in his gold gown with orb and sceptre, flanked by his sister, wife and son. The prince was played by Bettrys Jones as a prep school pupil in cap and red blazer. All three were wearing modern dress.
Edward took his coronation oath making long pauses before affirming its conditions. Strictly speaking, this dramatisation was unnecessary. The coronation could have been staged as a dumb show, but the interrogation of Edward added a note of tension right at the start.
After cries of “Vivat! Vivat!” the congregation sang God Save The King and the happy royal family smiled and waved at imaginary well-wishers out in the audience.
Having taken us back in time with the series of royal portraits, we were then confronted with an historical re-enactment of a medieval coronation but with modern trappings. Further complication followed.
There was a pause. And then from seat M11 in the stalls came slow clapping and cries of “Bravo! Bravo! Vivat! Vivat!” A distinctive American voice applauded the just completed ceremony before rising out of his seat clutching a letter. This was Piers Gaveston (Kyle Soller).
Reading Edward’s invitation to him to return to England, he leapt over the side of the seating block, edged along the hand rail of the long aisle and then jumped down to make his way on stage (1).
Gaveston wore jeans and a t-shirt. Emerging from the audience, he was one of us, yet his American accent and breezy manner immediately distinguished him as an outsider to the world of the royal court. This was a clever way of hinting at the Frenchness of the historical Gaveston.
He wanted to be surrounded by “poets, pleasant wits, musicians” and relished his own description of the wanton entertainments he would organise for the king, before departing to make way for the entry of the king himself.
Edward shouted in anger as he stormed out of the box room, frustrated that the barons, who followed after him, would not consent to the return of his favourite Gaveston from exile.
Seeing John Heffernan as Edward felt like a continuation of seeing his Richard II, but there was also a discordance between the intimate, minimal Tobacco Factory style and the expansive, no-expense-spared NT style.
The warrior barons in their medieval battledress stood to one side, facing off against Edward’s rage.
Edward’s brother Edmund became here his sister Kent (Kirsty Bushell). As the men argued, her feminine figure in trouser-suit and heels figure struck an immediate contrast with the warrior barons. It was no surprise that she was disposed to take Edward’s side.
The barons left the king to digest their vague threats of violent retribution if Gaveston returned. Shortly afterwards whistling was heard offstage. The king recognised the sound as Gaveston and searched the horizon until he appeared. Once back onstage, Gaveston knelt formally, but the king urged him to get up. They embraced warmly but with no hint of any sexual element to their intimacy.
Edward showered a series of new titles on his favourite, each being marked with the bestowal of a golden goblet. There was an element of comedy in the way that he paused between each grant, went to a large table laden with treasures, and returned each time with a goblet, so that Gaveston was eventually weighed down with these gifts.
Having celebrated Gaveston’s return, Edward caught sight of the Bishop of Coventry (Stephen Wilson), the instigator of Gaveston’s exile, who had an Irish accent. The pair took their revenge by mobbing him and tearing off his stole. Gaveston was just about to brain the bishop with a candlestick, when Edward stopped him. Edward granted the bishopric as well as all the land and property that went with it to Gaveston.
The nobles gathered to ruminate on the repeal of Gaveston, noting his new titles and the violence done to the bishop. Their meeting took place in the box room, visible only as live close-up video projected onto the screens (2).
This scene, in which the clouds of war begin to gather, was for some reason presented as comedy. A phone rang, Warwick (Matthew Pidgeon) answered and repeated the information he was given, before telling the caller “I’ll call you back”. People began to laugh at the production rather than with it. This marked a puzzling descent into humour at a moment when dramatic tension should have increased. Another problem arose when it became apparent that different images were being projected onto each screen making it impossible to direct one’s gaze at just one.
Young Mortimer (Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) spoke with Edward’s queen Isabella (Vanessa Kirby) outside the box room. She complained of being neglected by Edward, but was characterised as being primarily interested in how this neglect affected her own influence and status. There was an obvious flash of attraction between her and Young Mortimer.
Agreement was reached that the nobility would demand Gaveston’s banishment.
The brief scene 3 was cut so that the action continued with the nobles emerging from the box room with the formal legal document of banishment (4).
They gathered to sign the large sheaf of paper, eager that their will should prevail.
Edward appeared with Gaveston who still clutched the robe he had snatched from the bishop. He joked extra-textually “Did anyone order a bishop?” his frivolity immediately clashing with the earnestness of the barons.
To complete the contrast of tone, Edmund sat across throne with his feet in the air, with Gaveston crouched on the dais just below him. Their complicity nonchalance was a confident act of defiance.
The confrontation with Edward over the document culminated in mutual accusations of treachery between Young Mortimer and Gaveston. Kent tried to maintain peace, a role suited to a female civilian.
The initial happiness of Edward and Gaveston made the barons look like uncharitable aggressors, the “rude and savage-minded men” of Edward’s description, so that when Gaveston was taken away Edward was more than justified in tearing pages out of the barons’ document and throwing it back at them.
Realising that he could not buy off his opponents with titles, Edward reluctantly agreed to sign, which he did with a ballpoint pen, anachronistically clicked ready for use by one of the barons. His immediate tearful wish that the hand with which he had signed would fall off was very touching.
Gaveston returned and directed an understandable look of hurt at Edward, who offered him gold to make his exile comfortable. Edward also offered a picture of himself. Instead of gratefully accepting the miniature, Gaveston lashed out and hit Edward, who reeled from the blow.
This attack is not in the text and came midway in a sentence, which meant that Edward made no comment on it. As he recovered he said nothing other than offering to wear Gaveston’s picture. The effect of this was to suggest that by not defending himself verbally Edward was admitting to Gaveston that he had wronged him.
In the aftermath of this incident, the pair achieved a degree of unity by turning on Isabella. Gaveston accused her of consorting with Young Mortimer, while Edward blamed her for instigating the call for Gaveston’s exile.
The barons found a distraught Isabella. Their concern soon turned to disbelief and annoyance when Isabella told them that it was in their best interests for Gaveston to return. Isabella appeared to be mainly concerned about how Edward’s dislike of her resulted in social exclusion at court. Her mercenary attitude contributed to the impression that everyone at this level of society was thoroughly unpleasant.
Isabella took Young Mortimer into the box room to explain her reasoning. He returned and grudgingly admitted that the repeal of Gaveston from exile was the best ploy because this made it possible for him to be killed.
When Lancaster (Alex Beckett) asked Young Mortimer why this had not been done before, the reply “Because, my lords, it was not thought upon” introduced a note of comedy into these serious proceedings. The barons nevertheless agreed to this plan.
Having worn his gold gown throughout the preceding scenes, King Edward had now changed into modern casual dress and appeared with Gaveston’s picture hung prominently around his neck.
Isabella informed Edward that Gaveston would be recalled. Edward was overjoyed, prompting Isabella’s question “But will you love me if you find it so?” He hugged her and gestured to the barons to kneel, which they did reluctantly. Young Mortimer eventually stood up, which singled him out.
The subplot of Gaveston’s marriage and the character of Lady Margaret were cut. The initial mention of this marriage was therefore cut from this scene.
Pre-recorded video projected onto the screens showed Spencer (Nathaniel Martello-White) and Baldock (Ben Addis) on the NT terrace (5). Spencer told Baldock that he planned to inveigle himself with the repealed Gaveston.
They made their way inside the building by climbing down a ladder. Some of this was speeded up for laughs, forming another puzzlingly inappropriate comic interlude.
Stopping off in one of the theatre’s control rooms, Spencer encouraged Baldock to “cast the scholar off”. In this modern setting some of Spencer’s anachronistic advice was rewritten as “Don’t be an arsehole”. Their meeting with Lady Margaret was cut. Spencer led Baldock onstage making gestures at the handheld camera that now tracked backwards in front of him as they ambled across the stage.
Edward waited for Gaveston holding a blue balloon like a child at a party (6). This was touching and funny. When Gaveston’s trademark whistling was heard, Edward’s face lit up. Gaveston walked down the aisle again and after joining Edward on stage the pair kissed for well over half a minute. This was the first overtly sexual behaviour they had exhibited towards each other.
The barons, however, only extended sarcastic greetings to the repealed favourite. Lancaster got down on one knee, flashing the underside of his kilt; Young Mortimer spoke in a mock American accent; Warwick gave a derisory thumbs up, while Pembroke (Penny Layden) was generally unenthusiastic.
Gaveston’s haughty response was to tell them to eat their tenants’ beef. It was somehow appropriate for this criticism of the feudal order to come from an obviously modern-day American, even though he was himself the minion of a monarch.
The barons’ anger erupted into a scuffle with Gaveston. The sequence mentioning the Scottish ransom, rebellions and Kerns was cut in a general move towards simplification, but also paradoxically this served to render the action of the play less time-specific.
Edward rued his lack of resolve and vowed to show his “paws”. Kent said that she was also opposed to Gaveston, causing Edward to reject her vehemently.
Edward accused Isabella of being the cause of the strife. This prompted her to approach Gaveston and show her love for him the only way she knew how. She lifted his shirt, caressed his body and kissed him. Gaveston, detecting the subtext of her apparent affection, threw her to the ground, where she lay without Edward displaying any concern.
A cosy domestic scene saw Gaveston introduce Spencer to Edward, who groped his new minion. This made it plain that Edward’s court was hedonistic and promiscuous. They went off into the box room and began to party.
Kent joined the side of the barons (7). Because she was the king’s sister, her sincerity was doubted until Young Mortimer vouched for her. Lancaster pointed out that Gaveston was frolicking with the king, which we could see via the video screens. They all turned to face the box room and then attacked.
They tore down the wooden frame and carried its component parts to the sides of the stage. Once the fast initial attack was over, the removal of the box room panels was laborious. This was an idea that probably looked better in the director’s head.
The king and Gaveston escaped the onslaught (8). Isabella told the barons that Gaveston had gone to Scarborough and they immediately spread the name and rushed off in pursuit. Isabella said that would go to France with her son.
Gaveston ran in and skipped over the dais but was soon caught by the pursuing barons (9). Pembroke reached for her handy waist-mounted gaffer tape dispenser and stuck a length of tape around his wrists to bind him.
Maltravers (Alex Beckett) communicated Edward’s request to see Gaveston, upon which Pembroke agreed to escort Gaveston to the rendez-vous. However, Warwick vowed to frustrate the plan.
The ambush was staged by simply having Warwick turn and capture Gaveston there and then with no change of location (10).
The sequence involving Spencer Senior, Levune, along with the departure of Isabella and the prince, was cut (11). This allowed the scene to focus on the reaction of Edward to the news that Gaveston was dead.
Edward discovered Gaveston’s abandoned jacket and fell to his knees seizing on it as he exclaimed. He continued to face the ground as he grimaced that “I will have heads and lives for him as many as I have…” He took the jacket and carried with him during the subsequent action and later wore it.
However, his anger was soon dissipated into an impetuous desire to make Spencer his new favourite. Not surprisingly, the barons demanded the ousting of Spencer too.
The production entered into a sequence of battles. The barons lined up to fight Edward’s men (12).
When the battle began the word “ALARUMS” was projected in large letters onto the screens (13). After the barons were defeated, three of them were driven over the dais and crouched face down, tired and defeated as Edward triumphed over them.
Kent was dealt with last and was relieved to be spared, unlike the others who were taken away, with Young Mortimer sent to the Tower.
The brief scene 14 showing that Young Mortimer had escaped from his prison was cut. The action continued with the arrival of Isabella and the prince with their luggage in France (15).
The prince sang a song in French and engaged in a mock battle with his mother, pretending to kill her and acting out the spurting of blood. The character of Sir John was cut so that we quickly saw Kent and the escaped Young Mortimer turn up in France.
Young Mortimer and Isabella, in France, talked and kissed upstage while downstage Edward and his favourites entered to announce his victory over the rebels (16).
Spencer recited part of the list of names of those executed taken by Marlowe from Holinshed. News came of the French plot of Isabella and Young Mortimer, who were soon seen with Kent arriving in England (17).
Kent had a change of heart and reverted to supporting her brother Edward (18). A battle was fought which saw the young prince stand on the dais cutting and thrusting with his sword shouting “Alarums!” as soldiers rushed around him. Afterwards Isabella and Young Mortimer celebrated their victory over Edward’s forces. The hokey cokey was sung and Prince Edward danced about. The character of Rhys Ap Howell was cut.
Video was used to great effect to transform the centre of the stage into the dark, dank recesses of the monastery in which Edward, Spencer and Baldock had taken refuge from their pursuers (19). They were filmed together with the Abbot in close-up with an overlaid sound effect of dripping water.
Although the group were clearly visible in the middle of the stage, the lighting meant that the image on the screens had a black background, creating the impression that they were isolated in near darkness.
Soldiers broke in and arrested Spencer and Baldock. Edward was told “Your majesty must go to Killingworth”, using the ominous original spelling of Kenilworth. At this late juncture in the play, the interval came.
The set was rearranged for the second half of the performance. The centre of the stage was dominated by a large metal container on top of which stood a throne along with other items of furniture and clutter. Leading off from the side of the container was an open-sided curtained-off costume rack. The structure was solid but makeshift.
Young Mortimer and Isabella lounged on top of the box, while down below on stage Edward lamented his fall (20). This was expressed very eloquently in the line “But what are kings, when regiment is gone, but perfect shadows in a sunshine day?”
As he spoke of his wife Isabella “who spots my nuptial bed with infamy” we could see her atop the box as she lay in that bed with Young Mortimer.
Faced with demands to yield his crown, he offered it up to the bishop (David Sibley), but then reclaimed it saying that he wanted to remain king and gaze at the crown until nightfall. This led into a touching appeal to the stars and planets “you watches of the element” to stand still so that time would come to a stop allowing him to draw out this moment indefinitely.
He replaced the crown on his head and wondered out loud why his appearance in the regalia of authority no longer cowed those around him.
Pressed further to resign his crown, Edward offered it saying “Here, receive my crown”. But instantly revoked the offer “Receive it? No…” At this point the debt that Shakespeare owed to Marlowe as the inspiration behind the similar moment in his Richard II became very apparent.
There was a very poignant moment when Edward stood and invited anyone to take the crown from him, facing the audience to underscore the generality of his offer.
Sat calmly on the dais and after a long pause, he finally relinquished the crown together with a white handkerchief for Isabella, soaked with his tears. If she would not accept this, it would be returned to Edward then to be dipped in his blood.
The shattered Edward walked upstage and was met by a camera operator who filmed his face in close-up as he slowly shuffled around the far upstage curve of the set.
His defeated and fatigued face was displayed permanently on screen during the entire subsequent scene so that its events were constantly underscored by the image of Edward’s misery at the periphery of the audience’s vision.
Young Mortimer strutted proudly with his chest bared on top of the container in the company of Isabella (21). He congratulated himself on defeating Edward as he outlined his scheme to have Prince Edward crowned and to rule the country as Protector.
News came that the king had resigned the crown. When the crown was offered up to them as they stood on top of the container, Isabella reached down for it, but Young Mortimer insisted on taking the crown and eagerly put it on his own head.
Hearing that Kent was planning to liberate Edward from captivity, Young Mortimer called for Gourney and Maltravers, who promptly appeared from inside the container. He ordered them to take control of Edward from his present captors and away from his sister Kent.
Kent brought in the young prince. Isabella called him and he clambered up on to the container. He was seated at the electric keyboard where he proceeded to play quiet isolated notes.
By now Edward had completed his circumnavigation of the back of the stage and was ushered into his Killingworth cell by Maltravers and Gourney (Matthew Pidgeon again) (22). A plastic sheet was swiftly spread across the downstage area in readiness for the ingress of fluid.
Maltravers fetched a bucket of water and Edward’s captors proceeded to shave part of his beard. This was videoed and projected onto the screens so that the look of horror on Edward’s face and the ignominy of his treatment were both magnified.
Despite his abject condition, Edward expressed noble sentiments. His “O Gaveston, it is for thee that I am wronged” speech looked good projected on to the big screens. Having being humiliated, he was abandoned on the ground still soaking wet.
Kent attempted a rescue but was seized by Gourney and Maltravers.
The king was left in place lying motionless on the plastic sheet for the duration of the next scene, once again providing a constant reminder of his condition while the action focused on the usurpers.
Young Mortimer finally decided that the king had to die (23). He summoned Lightborn to come forward. When Lightborn appeared and removed his helmet, we saw that it was Kyle Soller. This intriguing doubling was made even more significant by the fact that Soller kept the same American accent and attitude with which he had played Gaveston.
There was no attempt to distinguish the two characters or in any way to disguise the doubling. He faced the audience when he spoke to Young Mortimer, allowing us to positively identify him. We were in no doubt that these two were essentially the same.
Young Mortimer feared “thou wilt relent”, but Lightborn chuckled and cockily assured him that he would not, setting out his extensive experience as a killer before being sent on his mission.
Confident of ultimate victory, Young Mortimer strutted some more and flexed his pecs as he relished saying his own name.
The young prince was put on the throne for his coronation. Although the same oaths were made, the ceremony was a pitiful spectacle with Isabella prompting the poor confused child to assent. The crown was finally placed on his head, but it proved too big and fell to rest around his neck. The ridiculousness of the event was reinforced by the ritual singing of God Save The King to a child with his literally and metaphorically ill-fitting crown.
Kent was brought in for execution. The new King Edward III protested at this, but was assuaged by his mother. This was the first sign of Edward III’s independence of mind.
Back in Edward’s cell, Lightborn arrived to take over guard duty from Gourney and Maltravers (24). As he presented his credentials, Lightborn asked for a fire and a red hot spit to be made ready. There were already fires burning backstage so this was easy to provide. But he also asked for a featherbed, at which point a mattress was produced from inside the container with an extra-textual “One featherbed”.
Edward, who had remained motionless all throughout the preceding scene, crawled over to Lightborn, who was sat some distance away on the mattress.
He accused Lightborn of wanting to kill him, a suggestion that he vigorously and plausibly denied. The king complained of his terrible dank living conditions. When he wished that his blood would fall out of him “as doth this water from my tattered robes” he raised himself up so that water did actually drip from his soaked garments.
Lightborn’s attempted intimacy with Edward was deliberately designed to make us think back to the closeness between Gaveston and Edward. This raised the question of what the director was trying to say by this. Possibly it implied that Gaveston was in fact Edward’s worst enemy for misleading him.
Edward joined Lightborn on the mattress and offered him his last remaining jewel, a present from Isabella, which he hoped would dissuade him from murder.
Heffernan’s spellbinding performance in this sequence produced a very disturbing account of the king’s mental breakdown caused by his isolation and not knowing whom to trust.
Edward lay down to rest, but immediately rose again as he veered from comfort to anxiety.
Lightborn eventually put him out of his misery. Questioned again as to the purpose of his visit, Lightborn grimaced “To rid thee of thy life.”
Gourney and Maltravers rushed in with the table which was forced down onto Edward’s back. As they placed their feet on it to hold it in position, Lightborn forced the red hot spit into Edward’s rear.
Although very violent, there was no actual gore on show. But the unequivocal way in which Edward met his end produced some audience wincing. The plastic sheet was dragged off stage with Edward still on it.
Gourney completed the sequence by stabbing Lightborn. This was quite a shock as the casting had created the expectation that Lightborn was to be as significant a figure as Gaveston.
Maltravers informed Young Mortimer of Edward’s death. He compared himself to “Jove’s huge tree”. But his moment of certainty and ultimate triumph was soon cut short when Isabella warned him that the new King Edward III had heard of his father’s murder and was not at all pleased.
King Edward III stood downstage facing the audience dramatically uplit by footlights that gave a sinister look to his face. This was accentuated by the character being played by a mature woman pretending to be a boy. The overall effect was freakishly unsettling.
The harmless child who had previously lolloped around was now the shrill voice of authority and vengeful wielder of absolute power. He ordered the execution of Young Mortimer, which prompted Isabella to plead for his life.
The youthful king saw that her compassion for Young Mortimer implied her guilt in his father’s death and ordered her sent to the Tower. She was carried away screaming at her son. This grim exercise of royal authority was perhaps more disturbing than anything that had preceded it.
Young Mortimer’s head was brought to Edward in a plastic sack. Edward stood on the dais, with the gold curtain behind it, as at start, and offered the severed head to his father’s ghost.
The production avoided looking like an historical re-enactment and positioned itself as contemporary.
Looked at with modern eyes, the killing and cruelty that took place seemed particularly senseless. With many characters in modern dress, the king’s power and the feudal relations of this society looked primitive and inappropriate.
Kyle Soller’s American Gaveston was a subversive figure just by being a foreigner. But as an overtly American figure, the product of a country founded on the rejection of monarchy and feudalism, he embodied a negation of the entire world of the play.
Shakespeare’s Richard II offers the hope of better rule in the form of Bolingbroke: this play contains no such optimism and the ending here was commensurately grim and sinister.
Video was used effectively in places but at times the director seemed to play scenes for comedy and use video at points where it jarred.
While it had clever touches, Joe Hill-Gibbins’ directing was ultimately less fascinating than John Heffernan’s acting.