Wednesday, September 14, 2011

All Hail Edward II - Royal Exchange, Manchester

Theatre: Royal Exchange, Manchester
Play: Edward II
Date: 12th September 2011
Director: Toby Frow
By JoJo Kirtley

Toby Frow’s updated direction of Marlowe’s Edward II is set in the 1950’s. It starts before the actual performance and outside of the normal theatre space; the foyer of the Royal Exchange transformed into a cosy jazz bar for all to see. The atmosphere is certainly electric as the audience arrive to see a couple canoodling on the dance floor and a live jazz band entertaining the crowds. We are happy and merry. We are all ready to be entertained. We take are seats and watch the characters of this 50’s bar flirt, dance and kiss; smoking roll ups, smudging red lipstick, clicking their heels and admiring each other’s beauty. We are drawn into this ambience, this beautiful, alluring, false sense of security. Then, the real action begins and the gasps and murmurs from the audience say it all as we follow the story of Edward II’s very demise.
The action begins when on the death of Edward I, Edward II, brilliantly played by Chris New, calls for his banished lover, Gaveston (Samuel Collings) to be reinstated from exile. On his return, the King neglects his duties and indeed his wife, in favour of being controlled by his favourite lover. This does not please the king’s nobles who vote for Gaveston’s re-exile. However, Queen Isabella hatches a plan with her own lover, Mortimer to destroy the King. She calls on the nobles to welcome back Gaveston so that they can plot to kill him. Gaveston does eventually return (to an airport arrival lounge) and is brutally murdered. The King, devastated continues to ignore his wife (and duties) but is eventually brutally murdered himself, by a hired hit-man.
Once again, the Royal Exchange has taken a play and made it their very own. Frow’s direction is clever, yet suggestive with a fresh take on this historical play, which is originally set in the fourteenth century. The cast command the stage with confidence and make full use the remarkable set, designed by Ben Stone. Edward II is a physically demanding, brutal piece of theatre where I wholeheartedly struggle to empathise with any character but this is what makes it so tragic. I felt that setting the play in the 50’s was a tall order met wonderfully by the talented cast and creative crew. The use of police adds an interesting dimension to the production and there is almost a strange echo of Margaret Thatcher in Emma Cunniffe’s tormented but vengeful Queen Isabella, especially as she regains power and plots her retribution with an army of policemen behind her.
For me, it was Samuel Collings who absolutely stole the show. First, as the King’s eye-liner-wearing lover; his version of the James Dean look-a-like, Gaveston, was electric and secondly, as his disturbing portrayal of the King’s torturer, which is almost unwatchable.

An enticing and chilling production of Marlowe’s play, which raises its very own questions about the existence, influence and importance of the British monarchy.

On until 8th October, Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester.

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