Much of the critical reaction to the National’s production of Marlow’s Edward II has been withering, and for generally mild-mannered reviewers, bordering on the vitriolic. Leading the charge is, inevitably, Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail who suggests the ‘the only thing murdered in Joe Hill-Gibbins’s puerile, inept production is the play itself’ (ouch) and is followed, perhaps rather too stridently, by Tim Walker in The Telegraph who found ‘In almost 10 years of reviewing theatre, I doubt I have been confronted with a bigger load of indigestible old tosh’ and couldn’t help but the boot into the subsidised sector while he was at it; ‘the kind of production that simply could not happen in the commercial West End.’
Many people would doubtless agree with Mr Walker’s final sentence but the despair being aimed less at the National and more with eyes turned pointedly north of the river at the risk-averse nature of the private sector behemoths; happy to suck up the most profitable of the tried and tested subsidised productions before reverting back to a steady rotation between Noel Coward, Alan Ayckbourn and A.N Musical complete with X-Factor star.
If the overt agenda setting of Mr Walker’s column can be ignored– and the reference to ‘comrades’ at the National rather says it all – it makes an important point in reminding us that the licence to put on a production this lavish ultimately comes from the public purse.
Joe Hill-Gibbin’s is a talented director who had great success at the Young Vic but his career trajectory is taking a worrying turn towards the excessive. A bright start led to a stint at the Young Vic where he created a stunning yet simple revival of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant Beauty Queen of Leenane and directed the only Tennessee Williams production I have ever managed to enjoy (The Glass Menagerie).
He scored an unexpectedly huge hit with the fun but rather too hyper-kinetic The Changeling, which showed a suffusion of talent but equally there were times where a restraining hand might have been called for. It is troubling that on the grandest stage of all Hill-Gibbin’s has not only failed to adjust his style but that the flaws, rather than being flattened in the vast space of Olivier, have only been magnified.
Whilst we must allow artistic companies the freedom to make mistakes, watching Hill-Gibbin’s exuberant production reminded me of the wisdom of Bob Balaban’s protective mother in A Mighty Wind justifying the use of a Shetland pony to play polo on the grounds that ‘if he has to fall, he shouldn’t fall from so very high’.
Hill-Gibbin’s exceedingly busy Edward II suffers from many of the same drawbacks as The Changeling. Infused with ideas it may be but it fatally sacrifices textual clarity to the director’s vision. There are many positive features but it is frequently exhausting and often pointlessly frantic. The stripped-back aesthetic (Lizzie Clachan’s flexible set being a real highlight of the production) made it hard to ignore Dolly Parton’s immortal line about it costing ‘a lot of money to look this cheap’; the ramshackle, kitchen sink nature of the production was clearly underpinned by a very high-end technical system.
If there is the faint air of a kid being let loose in a sweet shop to this production then one must also give due credit to the sheer verve and vitality present. It is bustling with ideas and the central conceit, rightly highlighted by Michael Billington in The Guardian, is that ‘it looks back to the medieval wheel of fortune and forwards to the idea of a tragic hero destroyed’. Edward II, through Marlow’s resurrection, has become a poster-boy for doomed love and so to trace it through to the modern day seems entirely appropriate.
Gaveston, in another strong performance from Kyle Soller, is a swaggering 20th century man in aviators and a leather jacket; confident in his own sexuality, he presents a challenge to the barons not by being gay but by undermining their hereditary legitimacy and creating a powerbase for Edward that they cannot control.
The modern dress, supported by the roll-call of monarchs at the start, leads to another question posed by Hill-Gibbins; exactly how much of a problem would it be to modern institutions if we had a gay monarch in the 21st century?
John Heffernan is, at times, excellent as Edward II; he effortlessly captures the frailty of a man who bends to the dominant personality in the room and fatally fails to see how he is isolating himself from his oldest allies, including Kent – his sister – and Pembroke.
Heffernan is an actor of huge potential and the transformation from his dominant, sensual Lush in The Hot House couldn’t be more stark. It would have been nice if he had been provided with more freedom to do the script justice but too often lines are fragmented and more than once drowned out by cacophonous drumming.
The start of the second half gives a glimpse of the greatness of Marlow’s play (which Hill-Gibbins allows to shine through far too infrequently) and of Heffernan’s talent. From the frantic bustle of the first half, the second opens in absolute stillness with Edward, Pembroke and the Archbishop discussing his deposition. Heffernan is able to move us from Edward, the King who slaughtered nobles and sent his land to ruin, to the tragic hero whose ‘thoughts are martyred by endless torments / And in this torment comfort find I none / But that I feel the crown upon my head; / And therefore let me wear it yet awhile’.
This scene highlights Edward’s indecision – oscillating between resigning and fighting on, Heffernan physically unable to hand over the crown – and his fatal inability to be his own man. In the first half the baron’s give him every opportunity to cast aside Gaveston and compromise but by the second half he loses the right to control his own destiny; even his own god-given right to kingship is removed from him under the threat that ‘the prince shall lose his right’. At this point even Edward is aware that succession is more important than his own life.
Vanessa Kirby is excellent as a scheming Isabella; constantly seeming to switch sides in order to find the best angle with which to retain control. Kirby works every aspect of the part and is rewarded by producing a rich performance that makes us believe that Isabella is the sort of woman who would happily turn a blind eye to her husband’s foibles if it meant maintaining power.
There is much to enjoy but there is also too much that doesn’t work. The music is frequently too loud and overpowers Marlow’s text (and this is even with the actors miked). At times the use of cameras was effective – using it to show the plotting rather than doing so onstage was an inspired touch to draw out the atmosphere of fevered treachery and paranoia – but too much of the time it felt like an unnecessary addition that defocused the audience’s attention.
On reflection it is hard to understand that a production this high profile could have made it this far without the lack of stylistic coherence being questioned. Hill-Gibbin’s is clearly a talented, potentially visionary, director but he has to learn restraint. One cannot take a playwright as good as Marlow, actors as talented as Soller and Heffernan and a budget taken from the public purse and not have to account for what is put on stage.