Last night I watched Edward II by Christopher Marlowe at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. I first saw the play in 1996 at the Bolton Octagon, when the production was given an optimistic ending, suggesting a spiritual reunion of the lovers after death: Gaveston as murderer, holding Edward in his arms beneath a cascade of rose petals. On reflection that ending seems out of sympathy with the play's pessimism. It romanticises Edward’s love for Gaveston, portraying it as some Platonic ideal, rather than an expression of hubris and defiance.
Toby Frow, director of last night’s production, provides a more faithful ending that also uses the same actor to play Gaveston and the murderer Lightborn (the excellent Sam Collings). It reminds us of Gaveston’s role in Edward's destruction and helps to provide the play with its sense of tragedy.
The production is excellent. It is set in the 1950s and begins in a rather louche club with a jazz band playing. The movement of furniture between scenes is sufficient to anchor a sense of changing time and place. Sometimes the place we are in is the disintegrating mind of the defeated King. In the final scenes the helpless Edward remains visible in his dungeon whilst we return to the Court to hear the plots of Queen Isabella and Mortimer.
The historical Edward II was emotionally deprived and bullied by his warrior father. When Edward’s affection for Gaveston, a childhood friend, became too intense, Edward’s father sent Gaveston into exile. Imagine how that must have burned in the young man’s heart? Chris New brilliantly plays the King as an emotionally undeveloped and slightly camp young man. In Act One Edward is prone to adolescent anger and flights of haughty rhetoric, but there is innocence there too, beautifully captured by New. The innocence turns to murderous wrath as the Lords opposition to Gaveston unleashes unresolved Oedipal rage that is never quenched.
Marlowe's play is a bleak portrait of human nature: each character is corrupted by the power they seek. Edmund's expresses his love for Gaveston but soon chooses another favourite once Gaveston is dead. It is a symbol of defiance that Edmund needs not a man to love. Edward’s love for Gaveston is narcissistic and reckless. It provokes others to take away his Kingdom so he can have his revenge. In the end he is undone and we are left feeling pity for a man brought down not by love but by hubris.