When much of your waking life is centred around researching and writing about Edward II’s reign and, especially, his last favourite, Hugh Despenser, it becomes one of those ‘things to do’ to go and see a performance of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II (written a little before 1592). I had managed to watch some of Jarman’s film adaptation but, to be honest, it didn’t do much for me. Anyway, if a play’s worth seeing, it’s worth seeing live.
Not having seen a Marlowe play before, and having an inkling that it was, in all likelihood, going to have a few (!) historical inaccuracies, I must admit to being a little worried that I wouldn’t enjoy it. Indeed, for the first half hour I found it hard to switch off my ‘history brain’ from comparing the play with the documented accounts as we know them – especially when Margaret (de Clare) was introduced as Gloucester’s only heir. At that point I must admit that I did find it hard not to jump up and shout: ‘But what about Eleanor and Elizabeth!?’
Eventually though, my ‘history brain’ did switch off – mainly because of the fantastic performances by the actors – and the beautiful costumes and real swords helped too (you know how I love swords!). Barry Page conveyed an anguished and completely lovelorn Edward (despite not having the physical appearance of the man himself). His pain, fury and bewildered last hours were a masterpiece. Rachel Darcy as Isabella could have been pulled from the pages of Alison Weir’s book about her* – inducing crowd sympathy at first then, once under the thrall of Mortimer, changing into a desperate woman, as much in love with him as Edward was with Gaveston. Dan Johnson, who played Mortimer was completely convincing as the ruthless baron and later tyrant: every characteristic of the man was there: machismo, force, righteousness, ambition… well, I was scared. For me, in an embarrassment of good performances, it was my performance of the night (and I never thought I’d say that about a Mortimer!).
Also deserving of mention were Hector Molloy who was a delightfully smirking and scheming Spencer Junior, and Keith Franklin who played an almost seductively evil Lightbourne.** Actually, I was surprised that the Spencers (father and son) did not come out of the play looking as evil as I thought they might. Spencer Junior even became the earl of Gloucester (a title which, of course, the real Despenser junior never received, but would have loved to have had). I wonder how much he would have paid Marlowe to write that in, given a chance!
It was good to see a production follow the line that Marlowe probably intended it to take, even if Edward didn’t come out as such a sympathetic character as he did in Jarman’s film. There again, Jarman had an agenda to use the film to promote gay rights and so it was not in his interest to do it any other way. This is not to say that this production ignored Jarman’s style, and Edward’s homosexuality was pretty overt throughout the production, including a rather passionate full on kiss with Gaveston (shocked silence from the older members of the audience!).
So, was it as historically inaccurate as I’d feared? Well, in many ways, yes. The actual characters were mostly right, although due to the strange chronology (missing out crucial events for example), sometimes the wrong people were alive at the wrong points. For example, Gaveston is still alive after Gloucester’s death at Bannockburn, when historicaly Gaveston was murdered two years’ previously. Some events were also a bit confused. But that was never down to the performance, just down to Marlowe – and anyone without much knowledge of the 14th century probably wouldn’t know any different.
And would I go and see it all over again, if I got another chance? Most definitely. And, I think for someone who hates historical inaccuracies (in this period anyway), that says a huge deal about the passion and professionalism of the Rococo Players that they could make me forget my ‘history brain’ and transport me into their world. It’s a shame that many who read this blog will not be able to go and see it – but if you are local to Gloucestershire or Oxfordshire, I highly recommend that you grab a ticket and go and see one of the remaining performances.
* Isabella: She-Wolf of France, Queen of England
** And not forgetting Reuben Stone who, although it was his first performance with these players, was an extremely confident and convincing young Edward III.