The NT could scarcely have staged a more yoof-courting/blue-rinse-brigade-baiting season opener than this if it had gone the whole hog and kicked September off with a One Direction concert.
Okay, that’s not quite fair: Joe Hill-Gibbins’s hyper-stylised take on Marlowe’s 1592 tragedy would clearly scare the crap out of your average
tween. Nonetheless, Hill-Gibbins has very definitely brought the spirit of the Young Vic – the hip theatre where he works as deputy artistic director – over for a far from straight reading.
Not that ‘straight’ is particularly appropriate for ‘Edward II’, seeing as it’s fairly unambiguously a love story between two men: the monarch and his brash favourite Piers Gaveston. That said, I’m pretty sure Marlowe would have had a heart attack at the amount of snogging that John Heffernan’s Edward and Kyle Soller’s Gaveston indulge in here. Nonetheless, these two terrific actors give this eye-popping evening its beating heart.
Natural American accent to the fore, Soller is effortlessly charismatic as a skinny-jeans-wearing Gaveston – I won’t spoil details of how he makes his first entrance, but it’s a) spectacular and b) pretty impressive that modern health and safety rules permit him to do it.
But Heffernan is the real key – frail and handsome, he spends most of the first half giving in to his appetites and most of the second suffering intensely as his nobles debate his fate after purging his lovers. Even at his most feckless he is intensely moving, an affable young gay man utterly trapped by his birth.
Around these two lovers, then, is a swirling, postmodern maelstrom of a production, where modern dress and medieval garb collide in Alex Lowde’s stunningly sinister costumes; where claustrophobic scenes take place out of sight, relayed by camera on to giant projection screens; where the set is a flatpack that reveals the backstage area; where everything is daubed with blackly ironic humour. It is aggressively modern and occasionally a bit of a mess, rarely seeking to compensate for the clunkier moments in the script (the first half hour is basically Edward changing his mind four times on whether to banish Gaveston).
But while the sprinkling who left at the interval clearly disagreed with me, I felt it all had a point, conveying the sickly decadence and severance from reality of the Plantagenet court, a tenuous twilight world of intense power and intense danger. Charles – take note.
By Andrzej Lukowski