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National Theatre, London SE1
There’s a lot to take issue with in this latest and rare staging of Christopher Marlowe’s great play about the ineffective medieval King Edward II and the return of his hated lover Piers Gaveston who, in this production, sports a US accent.
Matters aren’t helped by costumes that look so flimsy they could disintegrate at any moment, the set is constructed primarily of what looks like Ikea plywood and the production occasionally descends into farce, as when keyboardist Sam Cable — a constant presence upstage — strikes up the hokey-cokey.
Director Joe Hill-Gibbins has a very modern take in capturing the atmosphere of medieval England and much of the action, including the plotting of the barons against Edward (John Heffernan) and Gaveston (Kyle Soller), takes place behind the scenes.
Knights holding video cameras film the actors as their images are projected onto two huge screens at either side of the stage, an effect which is over-employed.
Pre-recorded footage of the arrival of Spencer (Nathaniel Martello-White) and Baldock (Ben Addis) are comical and speeded up so that you’re left wondering when the Benny Hill theme tune is going to kick in.
This radical treatment of a great text may not be to everyone’s taste, especially when screen captions are employed for Brechtian-style interjections to highlight key moments in the action, as when “The Death Of Edward II” is flashed up.
Perhaps the National’s publicity should have included the disclaimer that “some audience members may find such moments patronising.”
Yet despite the caveats, the production’s radical intent will delight many. Marlowe’s incredible dramatic instinct saves the day — the production of a lesser play would have crumbled under the weight of its own silliness.
There’s a great performance by the petite Bettrys Jones as King Edward III, who delivers a powerful speech as the final curtain descends and the play comes full circle with the crowning of a new king.
Many of the absurdities of monarchy, in which questions of who really is in charge, emerge. Pressurised by powerful barons and an even more powerful church in their quest to rid the kingdom of Gaveston the king laments: “Am I a king, and must be overruled?”
His homosexual relationship with Gaveston, scorned universally, certainly has contemporary relevance as the parliamentary debate on same-sex marriage rumbles on.
But ultimately this production is a bit like a classic Dr Who episode.
You might be able to see the bubble wrap but, with a little imagination and a great storyline, it makes its impact.
Runs until October 26. Box office: (020) 7452-3000.
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