views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Edward II
Tristan Bates Theatre
24th August 2017


Bradley Frith and Luke Ward Wilkinson as Gaveston and Edward II

Photography © Adam Trigg

One of the best things about the Camden Fringe is walking into a tiny venue - often not one which you would even identify as a theatre from the outside - and not knowing if what you're about to see will be the next best thing or a show that will have you wishing you had stayed in watching Netflix. However, there is also something to be said for the predictability of a mighty fine production at a purpose-built theatre. Each year, classical experts Lazarus Theatre install themselves into the "anything goes" black box space of the Tristan Bates and create something that is at least very good, if not legendary. This year, Christopher Marlowe's Edward II is the subject of the Lazarus treatment.

In Marlowe's version of events, Edward II (Luke Ward-Wilkinson) is holding court where his advisors, Young Mortimer (Jame O'Neill), Mortimer Senior (Andrew Gallo), Warrick (John Slade), Lancaster (Stephen Emery) and Canterbury (David Clayton) are counselling him against the return of his lover, Gaveston (Bradley Frith). Only Kent (Alex Zur) seems to have any sympathy for Edward's lovesickness. When Gaveston sneaks back in, this is to the disgust of the king's advisers and to the king's wife, Isabella (Lakesha Cammock) who is still hoping in vain to turn her husband. Yeah. Good luck with that one, lady...

Both Gaveston and Edward are played as very mischievous and antagonistic creatures, revelling in the court's abhorrence of their relationship. In fact, Edward's campness and their combined childish glee are ramped up to the point that when we first meet both men, we wonder if they actually care for each other, or if what they love is simply riling other people. However, when Edward is provoked into defending his lover, there is a hauntingly beautiful anguish in Ward-Wilkinson's plaintive cry of "Because he loves me more than all the world!" and in that moment, we get goosebumps. We suddenly see beyond Edward's finery and privileged status and perceive him as a very human character. Once the mask slips and we see that Edward, it's hard to unsee him, even in subsequent scenes where he mocks and jests and doesn't even take himself seriously. We've already glimpsed into the depths of his soul.

The ensemble of Edward II

Photography © Adam Trigg

Frith too matches this overwhelming emotion in the scenes where he locks eyes with his character's lover. And again, once seen, it cannot be unseen. As Edward fights with his advisors and Gaveston quietly reads the paperwork that he knows means his banishment, we see the pained resignation of a man who knows his heart is about to be shattered. We see past his impish persona. Both Ward-Wilkinson and Frith deliver truly magnificent, poignant and subtle performances. Whilst the supporting cast do a stellar job, it's the relationship that the leads create that hooks us and makes us ache for the injustice of it all. This is Ward-Wilkinson and Frith's first show with Lazarus, but after their spine-tingling delivery, they seem set to become some of our favourite returners. Let's have them back soon, please.

Although Ricky Dukes' adaptation of Marlowe's historical play does not shy away from the alleged brutal downfall of the real Edward II, he makes it feel accessible and relevant. This may be a show about a monarch and all the fighting and power play may be reflective of a particular period in time, but Dukes makes this the story of a couple who no one ever wanted to make it. The opening scenes where the male characters one by one file into the theatre and walk around barefoot, slowly, eyeing up each other, set the tone for 90 minutes of mistrust and secret agendas. The sheer passion of his two protagonists transcends Marlowe's language.

A special mention must go to stage manager Charlotte R L Cooper who deals with the fallout of our complaints that last year's Tis Pity She's A Whore wasn't as bloody as the script demanded. Given the period, there is predictably no happy ending for a gay king of England and Dukes makes Edward's end visceral, brutal and horrifically messy. Let's just say that Cooper clearly has her work cut out for her every night... As for all the gore, Dukes knows how far he's pushed us, with Ben Jacobs' delicately hesitant lighting bringing the shocked faces of the other players into startling view. For a moment, they are not only the characters who have demanded this outcome but also the audience who are stunned into silence. They hold a mirror up to our own reactions.

As you would expect from a Lazarus production, the mix of carefully orchestrated sound, lighting and physical movement is key to utilising the ensemble, with Jack Barton joining Jacobs and Dukes in creating some wonderfully chaotic fight scenes. Cristiano Casimiro's costume design veers from the drably modern to downright terrifying (trust us, this is not a show to be enjoyed by coulrophobes - the framing of Casimiro's outfit in the half-light is not something you'll forget anytime soon).

Edward I is dead. Long live Edward II. Or at least, until 9th September. An exceptional, must-see production which will entertain, move and repulse you in equal measures.

Edward II ran from 22nd to 26th August at the Tristan Bates Theatre, as part of the Camden Fringe. The run continues until 9th September 2017.

Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Piccadilly, Northern)

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