Edward II

Theatre
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Edward II
Photograph: Pia Johnson

A very dismal interpretation of one of history’s great gay love stories is hardly what we need right now

Edward II has long been buffeted by the agendas of others. Christopher Marlowe saw him primarily as a warning on the inviolability of class; Derek Jarman saw him, rather touchingly, as a champion of love over oppression; Mel Gibson, infamously, saw him as a simpering nancy-boy who got his comeuppance. In many ways, he’s the ultimate queer cipher, forever malleable and ripe. It’s no surprise Malthouse artistic director Matt Lutton would eventually turn his attention to the man.

Instead of availing himself of Marlowe’s typically stuffed and puffy prose, he’s collaborated with playwright Anthony Weigh on a leaner telling of the tale. It’s so lean it’s virtually emaciated. Even though it begins well before the chronology of Marlowe’s version, it jettisons virtually all the context. Thus we are left with a fairly grubby domestic drama that happens to be set in a palace.

Ned (Johnny Carr) is in bed with his new lover Piers (Paul Ashcroft) – the informality of the names is indicative of the focus, casual and quotidian – and the two indulge in all the inane pillow talk that typically occurs in such situations. Only when Ned has to leave for official duties do we learn that he’s the heir to the throne, and when Mortimer (Marco Chiappi) enters to explain the situation,  Piers realises he is little more than a royal embarrassment to king and country.

He flees, but is brought back to the palace when Ned ascends the throne as Edward II. This is initially at the behest of Edward’s queen, Isabella (Belinda McClory). She thinks she can contain the king, as does Mortimer, but soon the gay lovers are out of control and threatening to bring the royal family into disrepute. It’s not long before murder is contemplated. Even regicide.

It all sounds more entertaining than it is. Weigh’s register is stubbornly prosaic and offhand; Marlowe understood the benefit of tonal variation, but much of the dialogue here could have been lifted from an episode of Home and Away. The play’s structure is flaccid, wasting vast amounts of stage time with useless asides while reducing serious character development to mere sketches.

The performances, on the whole, are actually pretty good. Carr is convincing as the rockstar narcissist, but less so as the grieving widow/er. Ashcroft is rather poignant as the lover, even if the script totally eviscerates the ambiguity and viciousness of Marlowe’s creation. McClory and Chiappi are as reliably brilliant as ever, and alone bring the requisite stakes and sense of desperation.

Technically, the production suffers from the kind of excesses the play is supposed to be critiquing. Marg Horwell’s design is atypically awkward and overblown, locking the play and the players into a single mode of interpretation. Paul Jackson’s lighting and Kelly Ryall’s sound are insistent to the point of irritation; really loud music and really bright lights might be able to augment or intensify drama, but they can’t compensate for its lack.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the play’s sexual politics border on the outright offensive. The love of Edward II and Piers Gaveston can mean many things, but surely we’ve evolved beyond the concept of gay love as something inherently malignant and masochistic, diseased and inevitably doomed. That a modern production could turn its queer gaze so disastrously to this tale bodes very ill for the sensible, adult conversation about gay marriage the nation is poised to face.

By: Tim Byrne

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