A new companion piece to Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’, ‘After Edward’ is written by Tom Stuart, the actor playing Edward II in the Sam Wanamaker’s current revival, which is performed by the same cast as this new play. In this contemporary response, Stuart also plays his own lead character: an actor named Edward who is – mild spoiler alert – currently playing Edward II, and who’s just fallen through a hole in the ceiling. Got all that?
Stuart’s play certainly has a mischievous meta-theatricality. It can smack a wee bit of self-satisfied student drama, but if the intertextual cleverness is laid on with a trowel, it also delivers silliness in spades. And ‘After Edward’ is certainly more fun than the accompanying ‘Edward II’…
Rather than provide a gritty relationship drama, Stuart takes us on a wild ride through the actor Edward’s subconscious. It starts like an absurdist drama populated by Gertrude Stein on a toilet, Quentin Crisp on a swing and Harvey Milk munching popcorn.
This show has a point to make. ‘Edward II’ keeps getting revived partly because it seems so boldly modern in its presentation of a gay relationship. ‘After Edward’ explores what it means to be a gay man today – a different world, and yet one where sexuality can still be a source of shame. A child of 1980s, Stuart grew up under Section 28, at a time where ‘gay’ was a playground insult, and Aids was considered proof of degeneracy.
As Gertrude Stein, Annette Badland finds moments of grave beauty among all the jokes, while Richard Cant’s Quentin Crisp is perfectly posed and poised, hovering over us all. Polly Frame is fantastic as Harvey Milk: she brings him to life with a comic yet convincing charisma. Throughout the play, the three offer different stories of gay love and persecution, and differing perspectives on gay rights and responsibilities: should they assert their presence or assimilate, work for the individual or the collective, be satisfied with tolerance or demand equality?
There are also surreal subconscious interruptions from Dorothy from ‘The Wizard of Oz’, Maria from ‘The Sound of Music’, and Margaret Thatcher as a handbag-wielding villain. Stuart’s comic, springy vision of is suitably served by Brendan O’Hea’s equally lively direction.
There’s a deus ex machina, which I won’t give away except to say it is very smart, and very cute, before a moving big finale. A choir floods through the venue singing the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Liberation’, each holding a candle. And everything seems that little bit brighter.