Christopher Marlowe’s play about a foolish king, madly in love with his ‘minion’ Piers Gaveston, and the outraged court who seek to get rid of them both, finds flaws on both sides. The sneering snobbery of the earls who take against Gaveston for being a lowborn ‘upstart’ – and, it is implied, against the king for taking a man as a lover – is wildly unappealing, but Edward is also a capricious and injudicious ruler, showering favourites with titles and trifles while the country is in financial ruin and his soldiers go unpaid.
It’s hard to root for, or feel for, either side here. The sexual attraction between Edward and Gaveston is dealt with without any coyness – they’re snogging from the get-go – but there’s not much sizzle there. Tom Stuart as Edward smooches and smises at his beloved, and has a nice line in blinkered, babyish petulance, but there are few real sparks. Without that chemistry, it’s not totally clear what Gaveston’s appeal is, or why he’s so very enraging, either; Beru Tessema is smooth and confident in the role, but doesn’t really animate this Marmite figure.
Apart from the straightforward depiction of gay love, Nick Bagnall directs a very staid, traditional sort of production – nothing to frighten the purists but not much to excite anyone else either, unless you consider a bit of (extremely pretty) music on the West African kora exotic. There’s period costume, minimal set and props, and a lot of declamatory acting that delivers the verse, but not much meaning. Marlowe’s lines clatter along, rarely sounding like new thoughts finding shape in the world.
In such a simply staged show, it’s hard to convey much sense of the king’s impulsive indulgence. His court come across as prissy snobs, although Mortimer (Jonathan Livingstone), who challenges Edward for his throne and indeed his wife Isabella, seems remarkably amiable. There’s zero passion between Mortimer and Isabella (Katie West) either. She has one very powerful moment: a vast silent scream, when we recognise what a poor deal she got in her marriage, and which brilliantly lifts the understated line ‘I have been stifled’. But her motivation is rarely clear: is she desperate, or scheming? Does she really go from loving her husband to loving Mortimer, or does she barely give a toss about either of them?
Polly Frame is good as the Earl of Kent, bringing urgency to her flip-flopping allegiance, and Colin Ryan stands out, first as the youthful Spencer – the king’s new favourite – and then as Edward’s young son. There’s a freshness to his delivery that makes the material finally spring to life.