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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the National (Olivier)


  John Heffernan/ Ph: Johan Persson

Shortly after the opening of Edward II, there is an outburst from the stalls. A loud, defiantly modern, American voice heckles the medieval grandeur of the English court. A young man leaps out of his seat – lithe, bearded, clad in jeans, leather jacket and a chain round his neck – the embodiment of out and proud 21st century homosexuality. Yet as he leaps and swaggers down the handrail towards the stage, what’s most striking is how similar this Gaveston looks to the king who idolizes him, and eventually will die because of him.
In Christopher Marlowe’s text, the Greek myth that Gaveston invokes is of destructive eroticism. As he prepares to return to Edward II’s court, he talks lyrically of Actaeon being torn to pieces by his hounds after he spies Diana naked. But in Joe Hill-Gibbins’ appropriately iconoclastic production, the myth of Narcissus is also strikingly relevant – not in the negative self-regarding sense, but in a way that’s more profound. For one of its most poignant aspects is that Edward II seems to fall in love with an anachronistic image of himself, a howl from a more liberated age.
There has been a critical gnashing of teeth from some quarters over Hill-Gibbins’ production, a defiant postmodern mash of styles. Vanessa Kirby’s cuckolded Queen Isabella alternately chain-smokes her frustration away or drowns it in champagne (handed to her by her young son, who is played by a woman, Bettrys Jones). The scenes where the outraged bishops and barons plot against the king are conveyed to the audience by juddery hand-held camera. Yet Hill-Gibbins is not the first director to feel that the play deserves such chronological meddling. Derek Jarman’s 1991 film version used similar devices to capture the play’s anarchic spirit. Here it amplifies the sense of rebellion and devil-may-care eroticism at the heart of Edward and Gaveston’s love for each other, the sense of angry turbulence and confusion that spirals out into the court and country beyond them.
On Lizzie Clachan’s brutalist set – where the medieval court’s gaudy trappings are scant cover for the violence and resentment lurking beneath – John Heffernan’s Edward II and Kyle Soller’s Gaveston flaunt their love as if they are drunk on it. Since their feelings for each other are forbidden in the real world, they have whipped up a fantasy existence that eclipses all around it. This makes it feel utterly appropriate that while one minute they are brazening it out 14th-century style, baiting bishops and cheeking belligerent barons, the next minute they’re raving it up in a nightclub designed for the ketamine and crystal meth generation. That sense of dangerous euphoria stokes up the resonance of the Actaeon myth – the wilder and more reckless the lovers’ progress, the stronger becomes the sense of the hounds waiting to rip them apart.
As Mortimer, the baron beloved of Isabella and Edward II’s prime challenger to the throne, Paul Bentall initially cuts a stoic, dignified presence, though there’s a sense of increasingly hubristic self-importance as he leads the military campaign aided by Isabella. As the Earl of Kent – normally Edward’s brother, but here cross-cast as Edward’s sister – Kirsty Bushell also puts in an authoritative performance, struggling to do right for both her country and the increasingly disorientated king.
In the case of Heffernan, it is in the approach to death that his performance becomes most compelling. Caught on hand-held camera, his face is that of the weary martyr, poetic in its desolation as he accepts his fate. Cleverly, Hill-Gibbins makes Gaveston reappear as Edward II’s executioner, yet again making explicit the connection between eros and self-destruction. The death is appropriately appalling in its mixture of tenderness and violence, leaving you haunted by a sense of futility in a cruel, uncomprehending world.


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