Edward II

As usual, this is a collaborative performance from a group of third-year students from the BA Acting, BA Costume and Performance Design and BA Make Up for Media and Performance courses at the Arts University. This is the last of the four group productions this term; in the others there has been plenty of action and movement, some brilliant set design and some exquisite work from the costume students. Now with this Christopher Marlowe classic, ‘highly edited’ into one 90-minute act, the emphasis is predominantly on the text, the demanding, lyrical and sometimes poetic text which has stood the test of time. The set, traversing the Studio Theatre, features a three-level platform at one end, on top of which is the King’s throne, elegant and see-through, with room on the lower levels for the King’s favourites to gain proximity. At the other end is a one-level platform, sufficient elevation for the dukes, earls, archbishop and nobles of the land to rise above the common folk.

The dress code for all these important men is modern-day elegant suits, fitting impeccably with matching shirts and ties. The King is in a classy white ensemble and a rather understated crown and it seems that otherwise, the darker the suit, the higher-placed the dignitary wearing it. The exception is the beautiful full-length black dress with elegant silver trim worn by Hannah Dismore as Queen Isabella, completed by an equally understated silver crown and a sparkly silver bracelet. The young Prince Edward, played by Joseph Payne, is rather less elegant in unlaced trainers. (He is still only fourteen by the time he becomes King Edward III – but that’s at the end of the play.)

And so to the text, which carries us through the lengthy time period covered by the play. Director Luke Kernaghan ensures that there is an economy of movement, only what is really needed, so the production keeps moving and flowing smoothly through many scenes. The emphasis is on the actors pretty much to ‘stand and deliver’ and show us their acting skills, and on the whole they achieve this very successfully. Clarity of diction, pace of dialogue (once the performance settles down after a few minutes), emphasis, nuance, anger, outrage, fear and the full range of emotions, with precious little need for shouting and clamour, allow us to follow proceedings easily. Patrick Riley as Edward II, Oliver Clayton as Gaveston, and especially Jack Frank as Mortimer are outstanding in their character portrayals as perhaps the three most complex characters, along with the emotionally torn Isabella.

When Edward II ascends the throne as the play starts, he brings his beloved Gaveston home from exile. The relationship between the two is obvious and played so here, much to the chagrin of Isabella, of course. The outrage of the nobles grows as the King showers titles and honours on Gaveston and then seems to focus on the only thing in life he seems secure and confident in – this relationship – while the country goes to rack and ruin under his reign. It is just as much about class, though, and the nobles are enraged as the ‘commoner’ Gaveston rises to the top of the King’s loves and priorities. As the director summarises in his notes, ‘It is a thrilling exploration of political and sexual power games.’

The scene where the nobles collectively confront the King with their disapproval of all they see him doing – and not doing – while their own influence is being eroded before their eyes is superbly and convincingly carried off by all: Harry James as Lancaster, Mike Peploe as Pembroke and Ben Webber as Warwick in support of Mortimer give this group real bite in the confrontation. George Douglas as the Archbishop of Canterbury warms to his task as the play develops, while Joseph Yussuff as the Kings’ brother, Edmund, Earl of Kent, takes us through the poor man’s fluctuating dilemma of loyalties with the appropriate display of confusion and self-doubt which is only going to lead him to an untimely end. Mortimer grows ever more menacing as his position in power strengthens, and Jack Frank skilfully takes him on that journey as he becomes the power behind the throne when Edward II is deposed and the young prince becomes Edward III.

The assorted baddies and murderers make the most of limited roles, in particular Oliver Clayton in his second role as the devilish Lightborn, who eventually does in poor King Edward in his cell with a strategically inserted red-hot poker (the victim’s screams being well muffled here), only to outlive his victim by a matter of seconds.

Finally, some words of praise for Hannah Dismore. Isabella is the sole female in the cast: an unloved queen whose loyalty is finally pushed beyond her limits, and a mother, both caring for and then ambitious for her son, as she turns to Mortimer for his support and inevitably as a lover, but then is torn again between him and the future prospects for her son. All the while she is having to keep her emotions in check. Sadly, it doesn’t end too well for her character either, but it is a challenge very well met.

Overall a very pleasing production, well supported technically and with some fine lighting work from the creative team, and some beautiful tailoring work on display, too.

Future performances: 10 December at 3.00 and 7.30.