Intimate studio production of Marlowe's play is a dramatic account of Edward's fall as an obstinate homosexual and ironic rise as militaristic monarch. Strong acting and creative lighting in a powerful and well-directed slice of history.
Directed by Richard Monette. Set by Michael Gianfrancesco. Lights by Kevin Fraser. Compositions by Paul Shilton. Sound by Todd Charlton.
David Snelgrove (King Edward II), Michelle Giroux (Queen Isabella), Jamie Robinson (Gaveston), Nicolas Van Burek (Spencer), Scott Wentworth (Mortimer), James Blendick (Warwick/Lightborn), Walter Borden (Lancaster).
Artistic director Richard Monette's "Saints and Sinners" theme for the Stratford Festival's season features a pair of late-season productions that provide insights into the connections between sex and violence. Monette himself directs Christopher Marlowe's Edward II in the Festival's stripped-down Studio Theatre.
Monette's vision of Edward II features standard period costuming - medieval 14th-century warriors with a touch of Elizabethan doublet and hose - with the exception of the King's beloved, Piers Gaveston. The shirtless Gaveston struts across the stage clad in black leather, a medallion around his neck, as if he has emerged from a modern gay dance club. His hair a sloppy afro, he addresses the audience then rushes into the seats to deliver sarcastic asides. His interaction with King Edward is all physical lust: they kneel together and kiss several times before Edward wraps Gaveston in his kingly robes and mounts him in feigned sodomy.
Monette's blocking tends to position the nobles against the King like a firing squad, sometimes half-encircling him, at other times turning their backs in disgust. When Isabella confronts Edward, Gaveston sits at the King's side in her place, and they kiss while Edward paws at Gaveston's crotch. When the two lovers stand to confront their accusers, they face upstage so the audience is aware of Gaveston's constant caress of the royal behind. In an incisive counterpoint, the mortified nobles again turn away when, moments later, Isabella lustily embraces Mortimer.
There is no pretense of deep feelings between Edward and Gaveston. Their relationship is entirely carnal. Early on, while the nobles sign their rebellious allegiance in downstage lamplight, the King, Gaveston and a group of nearly naked young men cavort in the small upper-balcony space, undulating, swigging from liquor bottles, and pantomiming sex acts. After Gaveston is captured and executed, Edward mourns briefly, quick to replace his sexual favorite with the eager Spencer. Edward dons the crown and retrieves his fallen sword, then kisses Spencer passionately on the mouth. Spencer giggles, seized a herald by the neck and snaps a banner pole in two.
With his sexually deviant court, the gold-robed King in Edward II provokes violence and ultimately faces political repercussions, unapologetic and inciting continual backlash. In the opening scenes, he sputters his scorn, kicks out the elderly Lancaster's walking stick, then encourages Gaveston, who shoves the Bishop of Coventry into a bench and chokes him with his own vestment before sending him off to the Tower. The reaction against them is portrayed with equivalent violence: wearing conspicuous red leather, Mortimer slaps Edward across the face and puts his sword to the King's exposed neck. The King, alone in a spotlight, drops to his knees as his nobles literally and figuratively turn their backs on him.
The King's homosexual dalliance leads inevitably to armed conflict. Mortimer strides onstage, his drawn sword pointing at a map of England lying upon center stage, a spot-lit guard at each corner. Monette presents the war scenes with ingenious lighting, the individual combats back lit just off downstage so the fighting is projected in shadow play high across the walls upstage. The captured Gaveston is beheaded off stage to a grotesque sound effect, his head returned in a bloody sack that Warwick kicks from the stage. Edward's military victory is shown as ironic, his fall as a petulant and obsessive homosexual coinciding with his developing skill as a defiant and militaristic ruler. Monette spot lights the suddenly kingly Edward waging heroic combat at center stage as the four rebels are defeated in slow motion in a circle around him. The rebels are then linked with nooses around their necks, and Edward slaps each of them before they are beheaded offstage to the same sound effect that felled Gaveston. When the severed heads are brought to him in bloody sacks, the King hurls each one from the stage. The French counterattack concludes with the escaped Mortimer kissing Isabella in the balcony, the stage below strewn with sprawled battlefield dead, and Edward showing obstinacy not unlike Shakespeare's Richard II, offering his crown but refusing to let go of it.
Mortimer's victory is short-lived, dual crowns brought upon pillows to him and Isabella, but their kiss and embrace are interrupted by the arrival of the summoned murderer Lightborn. Snelgrove's Edward emerges from a center-stage trap within his dungeon cell, dark-eyed, unshaven, and wearing rags. Edward seems to find refuge with the priest in the dungeon: as monks chant in the candle light, tolling bells slowly fade, and Edward rests his head on the lap of his advisor. Lightborn and his accomplices then torture him with near drowning, three times splashing the stage with water from a large bucket. They then crash a table down upon his back in scarlet lighting and skewer him from behind with a fireplace poker. Edward's screams - horror, pain, disbelief - are not only convincing but unsettling.
Monette bookends Edward II with a similar striking image: chanting monks bear the coffin of a King slowly across stage, Edward I at the beginning and Edward II at the end. Monette's "saints and sinners" season finds no saints within Marlowe's Edward II, but the sinners are presented in a briskly paced, dramatically charged entertainment well wrought in a tiny studio space.
Note: A version of this article was edited and published in Shakespeare Bulletin, Vol.24, No.1, Spring 2006.