On taking my seat in the Olivier last night, I feared the worst… But, the frankly risible pianist aside, I soon grew to love Joe Hill-Gibbins' radical yet lucid revival of a great play not often seen on our stages… Purists will hate it, but as someone not always keen on 'concept' revivals myself, I found this one surprisingly robust and engaging. In the title role, John Heffernan… convinces more as a tortured soul than a man driven by reckless love. He soliloquises with aplomb… but his relationship with Gaveston… seems fuelled by provocation rather than passion… Theatregoers averse to high concepts, video screens and heavy-handed scything of classic texts are advised to stay clear. But for those new to Marlowe this is a fittingly fresh introduction to the wild child of Elizabethan drama.
John Heffernan… gets the leading role he deserves, delivering a performance of subtlety and substance… Heffernan makes Edward seem the embodiment of human weakness… Director Joe Hill-Gibbins revels in the facilities of the National Theatre's Olivier stage, but the result is often a surfeit of flashy conceits… The production's rowdiness and athleticism are striking. Yet it feels as if Hill-Gibbins is straining to seem bold. There are too many gimmicks… Kyle Soller is superb as Gaveston… There is fine support… But for all the jolts of explosive drama and energetic physicality, this is a frustrating interpretation. It's a show of great technical complexity and bubbles with ideas, yet didn't get under my skin. While this is risky, vivid theatre, it doesn't pack enough of an emotional punch, and for a play about desire that's a problem.
I've argued countless times that "director's theatre" is neither good nor bad in itself: it all depends on how it's done. But watching Joe Hill-Gibbins's flamboyantly individualistic version of Marlowe's 1590s tragedy left me with mixed feelings: admiration for the visual bravura with which it occupied the Olivier stage combined with irritation at the way it smothered the lyrical beauty of Marlowe's verse… It is, however, a sign of the production's indifference to language that two of the finest lines in English drama… are invested by Heffernan with pointless pauses that fracture the rhythm… There are strong performances from Vanessa Kirby… Kobna Holdbrook-Smith… and Kirsty Bushell… But I have trouble myself in determining whether my gratitude at seeing Marlowe's play revived is overcome by my doubts about it being turned into a director's holiday.
…This is just the start of an evening that begins to resemble a bumper compendium of modish theatrical devices… amid all the flashy tricks there are some good things here. Gaveston's arrival on the scene, following a coronation sequence entirely of Hill-Gibbins's devising rather than Marlowe's, is a coup de theatre it would be a crime to reveal… John Heffernan captures all the petulant foolishness of Edward, as he flaunts his affair and insults the nobles… He gets full value too from Marlowe's "mighty lines" of poetry… One leaves the theatre fervently wishing that Hill-Gibbins had trusted Marlowe's flawed, repetitive but often magnificent play more, and his own bright ideas a good deal less.
…Alas, the only thing murdered in Joe Hill-Gibbins's puerile, inept production is the play itself… Their live footage, often of swaying, bare floorboards – did they forget to switch the cameras off? – is projected on to two large screens on either side of the Olivier stage. Gimmicksville… Wanton violence, for instance the attack on a cartoon-wet Bishop of Coventry, is enacted with much silliness. But where is the crazed, cruel, unpredictable excess?... The Queen (Vanessa Kirby) is done as some sort of Chelsea girl, puffing on fags. Throw in some gum-chewing assassins, an Earl of Lancaster (Alex Beckett) with a Muppets beard, too much shouting, oddly obvious head mikes, and piano accompaniment which veers between discordant jangling and – I kid you not – the hokey-cokey. After you with that poker, Ed.