A radical revival of Christopher Marlowe's play at the NT Olivier is not one for purists, but showcases a range of strong young talents
On taking my seat in the Olivier for Edward II, I feared the worst. Two large screens, an exposed Brechtian set, a lone keyboard player. This didn't bode well. 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.
Hill-Gibbins mashes together period and contemporary costumes, medieval settings and film and, perhaps most daringly of all, Marlowe's words and modern phraseology. He throws it all in the pot with 'look at me' chutzpah.
When the Bishops and nobles conspire to exile Edward's lover Piers Gaveston (given a brash, all-American rendering by Kyle Soller), they do so in a back room with their interactions relayed live on the giant screens. One of the nobles picks up news of Gaveston's return via phone. "I'll call you back," he says gruffly, prompting uproarious laughter in the stalls.
Later, when the King's favourites Spencer and Baldock (Nathaniel Martello-White and Ben Addis) enter the fray, they do so via a sequence filmed outside the National; we even get a rendition of "The Hokey Cokey" to mark Prince Edward's eventual victory over his father on the battlefield.
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, a superlative verse speaker and deserved rising star at the National, convinces more as a tortured soul than a man driven by reckless love. He soliloquises with aplomb, often jumping between stage and film acting in a beat, but his relationship with Gaveston, so central to this tragedy of a King undone by the politics of prejudice, seems fuelled by provocation rather than passion.
When Edward plants a lengthy smacker on Gaveston in full view of the nobles (who costume designer Alex Lowde has cheekily dressed in leather skirts and colourful tights) it feels pantomimic. It's almost as if Hill-Gibbins wants us to titter at the gay scenes, rather than be moved by them - an argument backed up by a ludicrous three-way snog that heralds Spencer and Baldock's arrival.
The casting of Bettrys Jones as Prince Edward is another somewhat farcical element, thanks largely to her pudding-bowl wig (think Lord Farquaad meets Wee Jimmy Krankie), but after having little to do for the majority of the play she brings real pathos to the final moments.
Elsewhere, Vanessa Kirby's champagne-swilling, Ab-Fab-inspired Queen Isabella is a treat, as is Kobna Holbrook-Smith's thrusting, testosterone-fuelled villain Mortimer. And the infamous 'poker' death scene is leant added spice by the double casting of Soller as assassin.
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.
See Also: Our gallery of Show Pics of Edward II