Theatre

A new production of Marlowe’s classic Edward II strips back the original until what remains is a flat facsimile. By Peter Craven.

Malthouse Theatre’s ‘Edward II’

Johnny Carr and Paul Ashcroft in the Malthouse Theatre’s production of Anthony Weigh’s ‘Edward II’
Credit: Pia Johnson

Marlowe’s Edward II is the play by Shakespeare’s great contemporary – in practice, his precursor – which shows the man of the mighty line, the Bard’s only equal in power of dramatic rhetoric, putting his own signature on the form of the English historical chronicle play. Edward II was the king who dallied with his favourite, Gaveston, and who died when his treacherous enemies stuck a red-hot poker up him.

Marlowe’s play is one of his greatest works and it tingles with homoerotic feeling as well as the poignancy of its hero’s predicament. It is closer to tragedy than anything else the author of Doctor Faustus and Tamburlaine ever wrote, and would be a classic of our theatre even if Shakespeare had never lived; indeed, perhaps even more of one.

Edward II was an early triumph of Ian McKellen in his Richard II days, and Derek Jarman made it one of his gay banners in his 1991 film of the play.

Now Matthew Lutton and the Malthouse have chosen to stage it not in Marlowe’s gleaming and golden Renaissance language, which makes the blood and dreck and heart’s sorrow all the more terrible, but in a skeletal adaptation by Anthony Weigh who has worked for the National Theatre and the Donmar Warehouse in London, and who has, in his day, adapted Lorca and Anouilh. The upshot in terms of text has its points – though they are sub-Marlovian ones – but Lutton’s production is a stilted, slow-moving mess with flat, toneless acting that no amount of flash lighting or grandiose visuals can redeem. The exception is to be found in Marco Chiappi as Mortimer, the villain, who makes an impressive attempt to wrest music and meaning from material in the face of which the director and the rest of the cast are hapless.

On the page, Weigh’s revamp of Edward II has a certain terse, dramatic fluency. It turns the vast, bustling cast of the original into a minimum crew: the gay king, his wife, his rough trade lover, her scheming politic lover, and their little boy son. The language is demotic, energised and skilled, using a consistent street idiom to get rapid, sometimes shapely effects from the verbal pas de deux of the central characters, most notably in the rough and intimate crisscrossing dialogue between king and catamite.

It’s no crime against humanity to recondition an action that is structurally and by overwhelming force of historical memory associated with a great master of the language of drama. You can argue that one way to keep the dramatic classics alive is to back away from the fustian and the rich embroidered magnificence of the language that cloaks their dark and horrific hearts. The risk, however, is pretty obviously a form of theatrical amnesia, as well as a wilful blindness in the face of an art as complex and ambivalently weighted as that which brought us the great crucifixions of Renaissance Italy. Still, you could make a case for the stripping bare that Weigh has done, even if it reminds us that Marlowe, unlike Lorca, wrote in pretty urgent English in the first place.

You could forge a powerful, graphic, even eloquent piece of theatre out of Weigh’s meta-Edward II. It’s just that Matt Lutton fails to, almost totally. The stage is a great big squarish playing space littered with white tables that come with gold lamps and are adorned with all sorts of bits of gold and silver bric-a-brac: horses, instruments, you name it. There is backward projection when the Boy (Julian Mineo on the first night) has a squiz through his microscope or magnifier or whatever it is. All five characters remain on stage – in the familiar manner of German academic exercises in dramaturgy – for the whole action.

That action, which takes a hundred minutes without interval, comes across like an intimation of the eternity of hell: it is interminable, numbingly slow, and proceeds with no comprehension of the rhythmic arcs, the bits of pattering speech with which Weigh has traced ghostly circles round Marlowe’s crowded and confused drama.

There are moments of visual splendour as Paul Jackson’s lighting in a burst of purposeless bombast turns the stage some spectacular shade of purple, but everything remains inert. Johnny Carr as Ned, the king, and Paul Ashcroft as Piers, the lover, look as if they have been chased on stage from the nearest fringe refuge. Carr seems miscast in the role of the king to which John Hurt brought a lyrical neurotic intensity in BBC Radio’s Vivat Rex back in the 1970s. He is wooden, uncomprehendingly smiling, devoid of desire or that keening crushed sorrow that Marlowe somehow drew out from the depths of his never simply melodramatic capacity to contemplate cruelty. And Ashcroft is lightweight in the wrong way: we never feel the brutalism, nor the inarticulate ache of longing that is there in Weigh’s translation of Marlowe.

It all comes across as the kind of visually configured pantomime that ticks the right postmodern boxes without having a bleeding clue about the physical presence and command of the expressiveness that makes drama – and especially historico-tragical drama – live and breathe.

Belinda McClory is a fine actress, but she is stranded on the desert island of a one-note performance here as the queen, all shrillness and shrieking and wincing apprehension of life’s horror. It’s impressive for a moment, then freezes.

It’s a pity that Julian Mineo – and one fears, his fellow Boys – doesn’t get more help from a director for whom diction seems to be a mystery. As it is, he sounds like a primary school Demosthenes with pebbles in his mouth.

And so it is left to Marco Chiappi to do everything in his power to wrestle the script into life. He has so much tone, colour and music you do seem – like a weird historical memory of the fleeting wisps of a former glory – to hear the phantom of Marlowe’s histrionic brio through this billowing and accomplished act of elocution.

Alas, it’s a one-man show, stylistically completely adrift from the rest of the production. You sometimes wish that Chiappi was just reading the whole of Weigh’s script, or, better still, Marlowe’s, or, okay, today’s newspaper rather than have to watch this excruciating botch of a rehash of a great play.

It’s also the case that it falls to Chiappi to deliver the narrative of how Gaveston is reduced to a jelly-like pulp. Weigh’s text at this point is at its least winning: it’s in the eye-plucking-out pornographic style the British put on when they wish to emphasise, in Walter Benjamin fashion, the barbarism that accompanied the civilisation of the past – a style that people who have witnessed atrocity avoid like the plague because it is simply an inverted decorativeness.

It’s unfair to Weigh to say so, but it comes across as a displacement, an allegory of the mutilation of the text. With Chiappi’s beautifully modulated sound and fury, it certainly resonates like the elegy for a doom-laden production that harrows the soul and makes us wonder if our theatre is worth the candle

 

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "Mush Marlowe". Subscribe here.

Peter Craven
is a literary and culture critic.