As much as I find his work a pleasure to teach, the plays of Christopher Marlowe don’t seem to suit me on stage, somehow. I experienced my first-ever faint during a blisteringly hot performance of Doctor Faustus at the Globe back in 2011 and, last night, a combination of sickness (me, again) and total aversion to the production (my companion) drove us from the first preview of the National Theatre’s highly anticipated Edward II at half-time - something I really hate to do. Still, I wanted to record just a few impressions of the first half of the production here.
The evening began with director Joe Hill-Gibbins taking to the stage to confess that the company hadn’t had time to complete a full dress rehearsal due to the technical complexity of the show. Given this, Hill-Gibbins’s team are to be praised for delivering a surprisingly confident first performance under difficult circumstances. The strainingly “inventive” staging that the director has given the play is another matter entirely, though.
It’s not so much dramaturg Zoe Svendsen’s tinkering with the structure and coarsening up of some of the language that’s the problem, or the design’s - often effective and beautiful - mixing of elements. (Sparkly gold capes meet skinny jeans.) Rather, the production’s principal bone of contention is its recourse to grainy, shaky, sub-Dogme 95 video footage to capture the behind-the-scenes goings-on in Edward’s court (the Barons’ scheming, an Eyes Wide Shut-meets-XXL orgy), the images relayed on two large, dizziness-inducing screens on either side of the Olivier auditorium. Initially striking, these interludes gradually become irritations – as does the use of spelling-it-out captions as a York Notesy gloss for anyone having trouble following the plot. (Sam Mendes’s Old Vic Richard III set the precedent.)
Beneath these embarrassments, some interesting things are happening, it must be said. There’s the prodigious John Heffernan, for one, capturing every nuance of Edward’s vulnerability, childishness, pomposity and passion. There’s a delectably swaggering Kyle Soller who gets a superb through-the-auditorium entrance that’s truly worthy of the upstart Gaveston. And, as in his productions of The Glass Menagerie and The Village Bike, Hill-Gibbins once more proves adept at making some intimate scenes resonate (witness Edward abasing himself before Gaveston and a lovely mother/son interlude between Vanessa Kirby’s Queen Isabella and Bettrys Jones’s Prince Edward) – when he’s not swamping the play in fussy gimmickry, that is. The memory of such moments might just be enough to lure me back to this production later in its run, under, I hope, more auspicious circumstances than yesterday’s turned out to be.