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Edward II, Royal Exchange, Reviewed

Kevin Bourke applauds another strong - very strong - RX production

Published on September 13th 2011.

Edward II, Royal Exchange, Reviewed

DIRECTOR Toby Frow's vivid version of Christopher Marlowe's great tragedy Doctor Faustus, his debut at the Royal Exchange, was one of last year's theatrical highlights. But a few eyebrows were raised when, invited back to the Exchange to open their new season, Frow opted to direct another Marlowe tragedy, Edward II. 

Marlowe was a great writer but the first half here feels a little like a long scene-setter, with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of Gaveston in and out of exile, as the King and the forces of conservatism vie for the upper hand.

While this new production, running until October, may not have the literal fireworks and magical trickery of Faustus, it is another fiery affair and one which may yet prove to be more memorable. 

Apparently keen to emphasise the parallels between Edward's turbulent historical times and a period in our own relatively recent history when there might also have been a sense of regime change, Frow, with the invaluable help of his regular designer Ben Stones, has set the production in the Fifties, as the crazy free rhythms of Jazz and Beat poetry were supposedly scaring the living bejesus out of an Establishment already shaken by the Wallis Simpson affair.

Crucially, homosexuality was still illegal and Liberace, despite being camper than a row of pink tents, could successfully sue a tabloid newspaper for suggesting that he might be a tad too flamboyant to be completely hetero.

Thus the production begins outside the actual theatre module, where a jazz band, subsequently revealed to be actors in the production, are playing in a mocked-up version of the famous Mars Club in Paris, a jazz haunt for legendary musicians from around the world.

As the 'audience' of actors and the real audience drift inside, the European hep-cattiness continues until the uber-louche Piers Gaveston (Samuel Collings) receives the news that his beloved Edward (Chris New, last seen at the Exchange in Hay Fever) has now become King Edward II of England and he is summoned back from exile.

In the face of  fierce opposition from the ranks of the Church and the barons, the exultant pair, drunk on power, set about outraging all around them with their burning passion for each other, not least Edward's French Queen Isabella (Exchange favourite Emma Cunniffe), whose chaste peck on the cheek at Edward's coronation is in stark contrast to Gaveston's full-on smacker on the lips. 

This combustible mixture of love and politics has inevitably tragic results, not only for the characters who come to a gory end at a dizzying pace but for a country plunged into debt and internal conflict by the foolish and selfish profligacy of a careless few. Nothing familiar there then, either. 

Marlowe was a great writer but the first half here feels a little like a long scene-setter, with the constant to-ing and fro-ing of Gaveston in and out of exile, as the King and the forces of conservatism vie for the upper hand.

There are some splendidly full-blooded performances throughout, though, notably from New himself, whose transition from foolish young lover to wronged king, at least by his own lights, is an impressive thing to watch.

The production is also graced with some brilliantly witty design flourishes,  such as Isabelle's 'King's Speech'-like BBC broadcast and the re-appearance of Samuel Collings as the ghostly and mournful but still murderous Lightborn.  

Potent stuff, then, but not for the faint-hearted.  

Edward II is at the Royal Exchange from September 7-October 8. Box Office: 0161 833 9833. Online:www.royalexchange.co.uk/bookonline


Chris New As King Edward Ii %28Top%29 And Samuel Collings As Piers Gaveston In Edward Ii By Christopher Marlowe %28Royal Exchange Theatre 7 September - 8 October%29. Photo - Jonathan Keenan


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CobbydalerSeptember 13th 2011.

Saw it tonight, brilliant! Didn't think the first part was too slow, the 75 minutes just flew past...

LucylancasterSeptember 16th 2011.

Saw this earlier in week - absolutely BRILLIANT! The Royal Exchange has once again produced a masterpiece. Acting superb from everyone, gorgeous costumes (I want a vermin robe, now) and nothing at all to fault. If you do one thing in the next month go and see this do!

AnonymousSeptember 17th 2011.

It didn't work for me. The setting of the 50s didn't make its point strongly enough, for a start. But my main criticism was that the acting was wooden and two dimensional. Emma Cunniffe, in particular, threw away many of her lines and seemed uninvolved. The policeman were a joke, like Keystone Cops, and I wouldn't have been surprised if flashing lights hadn't have been used during the arrest scenes. Silly. Ranting from the main characters followed by downbeat moments felt like I was watching Coronation Street. That's the sort of acting we expect from Soap actors.

And, why was Jonathan Keeble used for two characters? Just unnecessary. The stomping around, on and off the stage of all the characters, particularly in the first half, reminded me of school productions.

I'm a total devotee of the Royal Ex's work but this production didn't.

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