Star rating 9/10
Edward II isn’t one of those kings that we learn about at school. And for that matter the original sixteenth century audiences watching Christopher Marlowe’s history play about this doomed monarch would not have been overly familiar with the details of his life either. But thanks to the skilful and engaging writing by Marlowe, and the fantastic production of the play at the Royal Exchange, familiarity matters not, and contempt is certainly not bred during this wonderful night out.
Edward suffered from coming between his father and his son, (also both confusingly called Edward) as kings are wont to do, who were reputedly brave, noble, and wise leaders of their country. Edward II, played here in a riot of passion and colour throughout by the mesmeric Chris New, was weak and not particularly concerned with affairs of state or war. He was more concerned with affairs of the heart, and as his heart was decidedly gay, his love for his favourite, Piers Gaveston, did not particularly delight either his barons, or his wife Queen Isabella of France, skilfully played with all the necessary degrees of despair and rejection by Emma Cunniffe. And thankfully no punches are pulled here with regard to Edward's sexuality.
Director Toby Frow and the team that produced last year’s excellent Doctor Faustus here, do not need to employ all the visual trickeries and magnificence that they used then. The action, tranferred to a more modern setting, spins along on its own, with a few lavish touches such as the coronation scene, complete with long and regal ermine robes, to help it on its way.
Marlowe is very clever in manipulating his audience so that for the first half of the play they have little sympathy with Edward and his weaknesses; but in the second half they are outraged and appalled at the treatment meted out to him. There are some contemporary touches, such as Edward being subjected to hooding and water torture, unfortunately still as relevant this week as they were in medieval times. Chris New’s performance is truly outstanding throughout all. And he is supported by another very fine cast.
The young child prince Edward is impressive in his loyalty to his wronged father, and his command of the auditorium. And no-one batted an eyelid when the part of the Archbishop of Canterbury had to be read through by a stand in due to last minute illness. This production is not one to let a small matter like that stand in its way. It is big, bold and very fast paced, but above all it is a fantastic night of transportation to another time and place by the Royal Exchange, currently enjoying an impressively excellent run of productions.