Peers vs Piers

Edward II (Directed by Nick Bagnall, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse)

I think this is the third production I’ve seen, although I had lost track of which came first — it was clearly Derek Jarman’s film of Edward II (1991), which is compromised by a compelling performance by Tilda Swinton as the cuckolded and cuckolding Isabella — whom you root for — and the treatment of the (spoiler) traditional execution at the play’s end.

In the text, Edward II is executed by Lightbourne (Lucifer?) with an anally inserted red-hot poker. In historical terms, this may or may not have happened — it may have been propaganda to smear his reputation by suggesting his body was penetrated and it’s not entirely clear whether the king was indeed gay. Such terms are anachronistic. Marlowe’s plays, including this one, and poetry include much homoerotic imagery, but again the waters are muddied by allegations tied to wider charges against the Canterbury man. In Jarman, the execution is a nightmare from which he awakens; Lightbourne kisses Edward and the two are accompanied by Queer Rights activists of the kind who would have been protesting against Section 28 and for HIV awareness. Meanwhile, Eddie Izzard played the part at Leicester Haymarker in 1995, but never quite achieved the nobility the play demands.

Edward IIAt the Globe’s Edward II, the play is one of two halves. Briefly grieving for the death of his father, Edward II (Tom Stuart) is more concerned with recalling his exiled favourite Piers Gaveston (Beru Tessema). His wife Isabella (Katie West) feels neglected and the court are as much concerned that Edward is giving power to an upstart than about him having sex with a man and they want him driven from the land. In a series of rapid reversals, Gaveston is exiled and recalled, and rebellion brews. Eventually, Gaveston is captured and killed, a declaration of war. The Archbishop of Canterbury threatens Edward II with papal censure for abusing a bishop who has insulted Gaveston — in a Protestant country recently converted from Catholicism the secular and religious competition for authority is a live issue.

Meanwhile the word “brook” leaps out of the script — “I cannot brook these haughty menaces/Am I a king and must be overruled?”, “What man of noble birth can brook this sight?” — and this points us to stomaching things. Is this laying the groundwork for that final penetration?

The second half has Edward II with a new favourite, Spencer (Colin Ryan) — the historical Hugh Despenser the Younger — whose father goes further than tolerating the potentially sexual relationship in return for wealth and notes the historic great men with male lovers. Or is four examples overstating the case to convince himself as much as us? As with Gaveston, Marlowe downplays this character’s nobility and here he is played with a Birmingham accent. If Gaveston here had the exoticism of being a person of colour, here he maybe rough trade. Edward switches into tragic hero mode — challenging fate and the sun, and there is even a moment when you think that he will win.

As is obligatory in the Sam Wanamaker, the action is lit by candles, which are slowly snuffed out as we reached the assassination. The nudity and violence the box office warns us about is there in semi darkness, as Lightbourne sodomises the imprisoned king with the poker. It is rightly disturbing. The doubling of Gaveston/Lightbourne perhaps gives us some insight as to who is the top in this supposed relationship. The play doesn’t end here — Edward III is crowned, and aware of the problems he will face with his father’s enemy, Mortimer, as his guardian. It would take him three years to assert his own authority, but that is outside the scope of the play. As with Richard II, we are left with the feeling that revolutionaries are no better than those they usurp — a live issue in late Elizabethan times, indeed throughout her reign. I’m pretty Marlowe’s sympathies lie with Edward II.

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