Director Toby Frow’s decision to set Edward II in the 1950s seems an unusual choice for 16th century Christopher Marlowe's play but it brings a familiar context rife with social and political change.
The austerity of the times is reflected in Ben Stones' design for the Royal Exchange, the entire stage area covered with grey flagstones, creating a series of wide steps. This ensures that multiple events can happen on stage at one time, without detracting from each other. Frow makes good use of different heights available throughout the play, as well as spacing out characters across the stage.
Opening in a Paris jazz club just outside the stage area, the theme carries on into the theatre itself where we meet Piers Gaveston. Exiled in free and easy Paris, he is brought back to his childhood friend Edward II’s court for his coronation where their close relationship faces prejudice (again ringing true for the 1950s setting). Gaveston’s return to the King sets in motion a series of political and personal events which threaten the balance of power in court and country.
On a plain stage, sound and lighting become important and Mark Jonathan’s lighting design is excellent, whether a strip light during an interrogation or a starkly bright spotlight on the King’s final scene. The switch between on stage and off stage music/sound is very cleverly done by Richard Hammarton on a number of occasions, blending action between scenes subtly.
Gaveston (Sam Collings) is a raw and energetic presence; arrogant and sexy – the opposite of the same actor's chilling and unnerving performance as an almost-mechanical Lightborn. Playing both roles is a clever device which works brilliantly.
Chris New as King Edward II is surprisingly sympathetic. In spite of total disrespect for his wife he finds himself – as King - alone, torn between love for Gaveston and his position and faces mutiny from former allies. The scenes with these plotting Lords are great, dark and filled with gangster-like menace.
Edward II is a sharp political thriller with loyalties lost and won at every turn. It’s a compelling piece with fantastic central performances from Collings and New which keep the audience engaged with every twist of the story.