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A CurtainUp London Review
Edward II

By earth, the common mother of us all
By heaven, and all the moving orbs thereof,
By this right hand and by my father's sword,
And all the honours 'longing to my crown,
I will have heads and lives for him, as many
As I have manors, castles, towns and towers.

--- Edward II on hearing of the murder of Piers Gaveston
Edward II
Liam Brennan as Edward II and Gerald Kyd as Piers Gaveston
(Photo: John Tramper)
Returning to the popular format of "original practices" in its season of "Regime Change", the Globe is staging the second of Christopher Marlowe's plays this season, the tragedy of Edward II first published in 1592. It is fascinating for the Globe to stage both Marlowe's Edward II and Shakespeare's Richard II in the same summer, offering audiences the opportunity to compare the two plays. It is obvious that Will Shakespeare must have seen Marlowe's earlier play for many of the themes of his Richard II are developments of those of Edward II. I was blown away by the beauty and clarity of Marlowe's blank verse in this play first performed just a year before his murder in a Deptford boarding house.

Marlowe's Edward II is a play centuries ahead of its own time in that it deals with homosexuality and power politics, looking at the monarch Edward II's (Liam Brennan) relationship with his notorious favourite Piers Gaveston (Gerald Kyd). We have to be clear that what would have offended sixteenth century audiences about the king and Gaveston, was not their sexual relationship but the preferment, the political favouritism, the inappropriate power, lands and titles vested in an individual. Gaveston was a Gascon squire and viewed by the English barons as well beneath them in social class.

Edward II followed his strong father, Edward I, as monarch. Maybe it was a father son rebellion-type thing but Edward II could not have turned out more differently from his battle-winning father. Edward systematically lost most of the territory gained by his father and passed his time in fashion and frippery. Edward was married to Isabella Valois of France, daughter and sister to the kings of France. She was called the "she-wolf" of France, a strong condemnation of how she was perceived by the English. Marlowe's play tells the history of Edward's reign, how Gaveston was murdered by the barons, how Spencer (Despenser) (Michael Brown) becomes the new favourite, how Queen Isabella (Chu Omambala) turns to Roger de Mortimer (Justin Shelvin) who becomes her lover and how they support a rebellion against the king. Edward II is imprisoned in Berkeley Castle and famously murdered by Lightborn (Peter McEnnery) at the queen and Mortimer's orders with an undetectable, red hot poker. His son, Edward III (Richard Glaves) becomes king and executes Mortimer but banishes his mother to live in the Tower.

Timothy Walker's production uses an all male cast but then there are only two female parts in this play and one of them, to use common parlance, has more balls than most men. I'm not sure about the casting of Chu Omambala as Isabella. His size and blackness denote an otherness in contrast with the rest of the cast but as a woman he is less appealing than Gerald Kyd's beautiful and coquettish Gaveston. This unbalances the play as the wronged queen has little poignancy and is unsympathetic. Liam Brennan is outstanding as Edward II. Sensitive and weak, repeating his mistakes and yet, like Richard II, the anointed king who takes his authority from God. I felt the parallels with modern day abdications for love when Edward is almost prepared to give up his throne for love of Gaveston. In the Globe production, Edward and Gaveston kiss in front of the court much to the surprised amusement of some of the inexperienced, theatre-going groundlings. Edward tenderly carries Gaveston to the double chaired throne as if he were his queen. Even your reviewer was embarrassed to suppress a laugh at the double-meaning of Isabella's plaintive cry, "Oh miserable and distressèd queen".

At three and a quarter hours, this production did not pale even on the Globe's wooden seats. There is a glorious rhythmic, stamping dance with Maori echoes recreating Edward's battles, with mimed clashing of broadswords and choreographed battle lines. The murders of Gaveston and Edward are chilling and disturbing. Edward's "lakes of gore" speech at Gaveston's loss is genuinely heart rending. When the lords demand that the king gives up the new favourite, Spencer, we feel the loneliness of this man who is allowed no friends. Like Richard II, Edward II is humiliated, brought down (and in Edward's case forced to shave in a puddle). It is only then that both kings realise what they have lost. As the Earl of Kent (Patrick Toomey) expresses it, "Oh miserable is that commonwealth where lords keep courts and kings are locked in prison".

The magnificent Tudor/Stuart costumes are added to each Globe year as they would have been in Shakespeare's time, all using original dyes and original fabrics. Here the colours of claret and burgundy mix with black and brown, and the red ceremonial robes trimmed with ermine make the lords' procession look festive. Gaveston's yellow toga as he cavorts as the god Pan is risqué and provocative. The original music and drums provide welcome atmosphere, especially to battle scenes. Edward II is an outstanding example of the use of the Globe's space to perform a rare masterpiece play and should get the large and appreciative audience it deserves.

Edward II
Written by Christopher Marlowe
Master of Play: Timothy Walker

Starring: Liam Brennan
With: Gerald Kyd, Richard Glaves, Peter Shorey, Justin Avoth, Patrick Brennan, Bill Stewart, Justin Shelvin, Patrick Toomey, Albie Woodington, John McEnery, Chu Omambala, William Osborne, Terry McGinity, Michael Brown,
Masters of Clothing: Imogen Ross and Jenny Tiramani
Master of Properties and Hangings: Jenny Tiramani
Master of Historical Music: Keith McGowan
Master of Theatre Music: Claire van Kampen
Master of Dance: Sian Williams
Master of the Words: Giles Block
Master of Movement: Glynn MacDonald
Master of Voice: Stewart Pearce
Masters of Fights: John Waller and Jonathan Waller
Running time: Three hours fifteen minutes with two intervals.
Box Office: 020 7401 9919
Booking to 26th September 2003
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 31st July 2003 performance at the Globe, New Globe Walk London SE1 (Tube Station: London Bridge/Mansion House via Millennium Bridge)
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