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Review: After Edward (Shakespeare's Globe)

Tom Stuart's new play is a response to Christopher Marlowe's Edward II

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
Richard Cant as Quentin Crisp in After Edward
© Marc Brenner

It's hard to resist a play that has Quentin Crisp, Maria von Trapp and Harvey Milk on the cast of characters. Or one that has Mrs Thatcher bursting through the stage of a rebuilt 17th century theatre to confront an actor who has wandered in from a play by Christopher Marlowe.

Tom Stuart's response to Edward II, in which he is currently playing the leading role, has more than a whiff of Tom Stoppard's Travesties about it. It isn't quite as clever and it doesn't progress as far in its arguments, but it is smart, enjoyable and intensely heart-felt. It feels like a tyro effort, but this enterprising Globe commission definitely marks Stuart as a writer to watch.

It begins with Edward II lying prone on the stage after apparently falling from the ceiling. He is engaged in baffled and amusing conversation with an ecclesiastical type called Canterbury who is lighting the theatre's candles and worrying about the effects of the fall – "Always bend your knees. You could have hurt yourself" – until the moment he attacks our fallen hero for the "abomination" of having sex with another man.

Edward, of course, is the protagonist of one of the earliest dramas to deal with homosexuality. He may throw away his kingdom because of his extravagance and weakness, but he makes enemies because of his obsession with his favourite Gaveston. Stuart's starting point for this play is to ask what qualities he as an actor drew on in his own life in order to bring the failed king to life.

He seeks to answer it by assembling a sort of dream dinner party of heroes and heroines who offer various views of what it is to be gay, and how the homosexual community should assert itself. Crisp, swinging above the stage in an elegantly sharp performance by Richard Cant, offers most of the fun and a sterling defence of individual assertion; Harvey Milk (Polly Frame), bouncing in from the side, argues in favour of collective action and legislation. Gertrude Stein (Annette Badland) bores on as she had a tendency of doing.

Gradually themes emerge, of the way that Mrs Thatcher (a brilliant impersonation by Sanchia McCormack) induced shame in Tom (who keeps trying to ban her from the stage) by bringing in the notorious Section 28 which prevented local authorities from promoting homosexuality as a "pretended family relationship". That shame, in turn, makes him feel unworthy of love.

The arguments have a tendency to run all over the place and last a little too long. But the general air of mayhem – Stein appears seated on a pink-carpeted loo – is fun and there are some very good lines. I particularly liked the intervention of the 16th century actor Edward Alleyn (Jonathan Livingstone in fine roistering form) who consistently undercuts Stuart's 21st century liking for psychological motivation. What did he ask Marlowe about playing Edward II? "What's my cue and what am I holding?" he replies.

What lifts the play, however, is not just its mood of lively debate but the emotion that Stuart brings to the explanation. He is such an attractive, well-meaning force at its centre, that the semi-confessional tone is hard to resist, especially as it reaches its rousing conclusion with the help of the Pet Shop Boys and the exuberant Fourth Choir. A mess, but a rather glorious one.

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