Edward II | Malthouse TheatreLeft – Paul Ashcroft and Johnny Carr. Cover – Johnny Carr and Paul Ashcroft. Photos – Pia Johnson

Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II sets public obligation against private passion. The newly-crowned king calls his lover, Piers Gaveston, back from exile, initiating a rebellion in the court that eventually leads to the king’s downfall and brutal death.

This adaptation by writer Anthony Weigh and director Matthew Lutton brings Marlowe’s play into the twenty-first century and positions the love story of Edward (here Ned) and Gaveston front and centre.

We’re still in a kingdom – a stylised and minimalist kingdom, but convincing nonetheless. Ned (Johnny Carr) is a king-in-waiting, kicking against the burden of duty. He meets Piers (Paul Ashcroft), a commoner, and in a series of neat, casually revealing moments, their relationship cements itself.

What we get in these scenes is the backstory of Marlowe’s play, validating the relationship between king and commoner, grounding it in an emotional as well as a physical passion. The scenes underscore the grief Ned experiences when Piers is banished and the joy that comes – played out in an exquisite set-piece at the coronation ball, the king and his lover dancing – when Piers’ banishment, at the Queen’s urging, is revoked.

Carr’s Ned is all hedonistic obsession, lashing out against the demands of state and viciously mourning his lover’s exile. And there is a trembling intensity to his love for Piers, something that visibly lifts him during his first days as king, but ends by overwhelming him. It’s a charismatic performance from Carr.

As Piers, Paul Ashcroft is something of a wide-eyed Cinderella, unable to believe he has won the attention of a Prince. But he can see, long before Ned does, that the mood of the kingdom is turning against them. Ashcroft brings both a visceral fear and a heartbreaking sense of loss to their final separation.

Between them, Weigh and Lutton efficiently expose the deeper layers of Marlowe’s play. A conversation between Piers and the king’s aide Mortimer (a weasel-like Marco Chiappi) about degustation menus accentuates Piers’ lowly origins. The nature of the bond between Ned and Piers is signified in the exchange of a piece of clothing. The decline of the kingdom is chronicled by Ned’s son (Julian Mineo in an assured performance) through the study of a series of artefacts. And the nature of kingship – its function in warding away the chaos – is tidily delineated by Mortimer during an archery lesson with the boy-prince.

This is a visually arresting production and much of the credit for that needs to go to Lutton. He consistently discovers images – in the colours he uses, in the way he organises his actors on the stage – that just demand attention.

Marg Horwell’s set design – a grand hall-like space, more museum than palace – serves well as a bear-pit of power, while also suggesting an order teetering on the edge of oblivion. Sound and lighting (Kelly Ryall and Paul Jackson) punctuate the drama, giving the whole thing a quality that is both intimate and epic.

As enthralling as this production is, it does start to waver under the pressure of its own ambitions. In foregrounding the love story, the political underpinnings of Marlowe’s play are neglected. Thematic seams are uncovered but never fully utilised. As a result, the fundamental tension of the play – the collision between public and private that should bring things to their climax – is lost, and what we get instead is a forced and unsatisfying denouement.

By positioning Mortimer as something of a flunkey-with-benefits, rather than a man with his own claim, however tenuous, to the kingship (as we see in Marlowe’s play), this Edward II finds itself without a potent adversary to Ned. Weigh’s solution, to have ‘the people’ arriving as something of deus ex machina to storm the palace and force Ned’s abdication, fails to convince. And Mortimer’s account of how, with a few well chosen words, he persuaded ‘the people’ to turn against the king is hardly credible.

Missing too from this adaptation is the question of Piers’ motivation. Marlowe allows that Gaveston’s impulse is, in part, to manipulate the king for his own benefit, but we get none of that friction here, and the play suffers for it.

It’s also worth pointing out that while the men in this play have been brought into the present moment, the only woman has been left several centuries in the past. As Ned’s wife, Sib, Belinda McClory brings dignity and resolve to a role that is largely reactive. One can only wonder what she might have achieved here if she’d had more to work with.

Faults aside, Edward II is a striking piece of theatre. It isn’t quite all it could be, but still very much worth a look.

Malthouse Theatre presents
Edward II
by Anthony Weigh | based on the play by Christopher Marlowe

Director Matthew Lutton

Venue: Malthouse Theatre | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank VIC
Dates: 29 July – 21 August, 2016
Tickets: $65 – $35
Bookings: malthousetheatre.com.au

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