Review: Edward II (play) at Berkeley Castle, 10th April.

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.

So, when I heard that a local theatre group, the Rococo Players (who I last saw in A Winter’s Tale) were not only putting on the production – but also at the decidedly apt and poignant venues of Berkeley Castle, Gloucester Cathedral and Oriel College Oxford, it was going to be an occasion that I wouldn’t miss for the world. Feeling that somehow Berkeley Castle was perhaps the most atmospheric location for me to see it, I booked tickets for myself and my family (including a rather unwilling teenager).

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.


About Jules Frusher

With an MA in Creative and Critical Writing, I am passionate about the written word. The other great loves of my life are all things Medieval (especially Hugh le Despenser the Younger) and animal behaviour (especially canids and corvids). Give me a castle in the wilderness (with Broadband!) and I'll be happy!
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18 Responses to Review: Edward II (play) at Berkeley Castle, 10th April.

  1. Susan – you would have loved it. Wish I had one big teleportation device to get you all over. No, I haven't seen the McKellen version – but I will check it out.Elizabeth – it's a pity the Rococo PLayers couldn't do a US tour for you all over there – I'm sure there are plenty who would want to see it. As for Marlowe's inaccuracies – he probably didn't see them as such. He was going from another source – the 3rd volume of Raphael Holinshed's Chronicles (1587) – the same source that Shakespeare used for many of his history plays. I guess they didn't have the same access to the many primary documents that we do today.

  2. Dan – I truly, truly did enjoy it – and yes, I could tell that you all were having fun too. I think it always comes across when a cast get on well. I'm really pleasantly surprised that many of you looked into actual characters – wish I could have helped! Mortimer was a fascinating man (although, as a Despenser person, I have to whisper this lol!) – and Marlowe did get it right in that he seemed to change when he got into power. Actually, I'd date it to when Despenser got into power. Those two had family blood feud going on that was always going to end in tears.By the way, Ian's Mortimer book is excellent but I don't rate Doherty that highly as there are a lot of errors in his version of what happened. But I agree with you – when you do a play, the text does have to dictate the action, no matter how wrong it may be in places – after all, you're not doing a documentary. But whatever you all did – it was right, as it worked totally for me (and everyone else too, I suspect).And yes, I am almost tempted to come and see you all again – it will be at Gloucester if I do. 🙂

  3. Anerje says:

    What a fantastic opportunity! To see Marlowe's Edward II at Berkely! I really am green! I can cope with Shakespeare and Marlowe's 'historical licence', shall we say, as I take the view most people expect inaccuracies with them – or am I being naive?

  4. Ceirseach says:

    I think people expect good theatre. 🙂 Accuracy isn't really relevant.

  5. Carla says:

    That sounds like a wonderful production. Glad you enjoyed it!

  6. Gabriele C. says:

    Any chance this performance will find its way onto DVD?I can usually switch the historian's brain off when watching plays (or opera, for that matter) but I have a harder time doing in with books. Or movies – since those are rarely written by a master, I keep silently swearing at the inaccuracies and eventually turn the TV off.

  7. Ceirseach says:

    Really? And what does it do to women, O Ye of Suspicious Links That Are Actually Nasty Downloads?

  8. Gabriele – yes, Im like you. I think my histort brain was still in mode for this because I knew I would write a blog post from it, and so I was still 'switched on', if you like. I am going to see it again this Wednesday eve, and this time I will just let myself enjoy it for the excellent play it is.Ceirseach – yes, just got back and saw that comment – and removed it!! Amazing how it still gets through even with word verification. I could switch again to comment moderation, but then I don't always get around to seeing them for a week and that's not good for the genuine comentators. A curse on spammers! Especially nasty download spammers!

  9. History brain – not histort brain! Heck, more coffee needed!

  10. Ceirseach says:

    Feels a bit like an old friend – I've seen it on my blog from time to time too. At least it's more entertaining than most, in that it usually responds with some suspiciously religious-sounding truism that manages to be tangentially relevant to the matter of the post. Kind of abstract.

  11. Dave says:

    A DVD is being filmed at tonight's performance at Gloucester Cathedral within sight of Edward's tomb. Don't think it'll be in shot sadly! (21/04/10)If you would like a copy, please email us using the email contact on our website Cost to be advised but around £25 plus shipping (price of a low volume run unfortunately but less than an air fare to UK – Volcanoes permitting 😎 )

  12. Isabella says:

    Hello, I'm Rachel Darcy who played Isabella. Thanks for your kind comments. Interesting the first time I playes Isabella, 3 years ago, I read the Alison Weir book and tried to play her as sympathetically and historically accurately as she is portrayed. But it just didn't work as Marlowe hadn't written her that way! So in the end I gave in to the text and played her as the scheming 'Lady Macbeth' type figue that Marlowe paints her. Great fun and suddenly it all made sense. A DVD was made of it tonight and I'm sure we can get you one. Lovely to meet someone online as passionate about Ed II as us! (By the way – I knew about Despsenser's loathing – and possible sexual assault of Isabella and though we barely made contact in the play – we tried to give a hint of it in veiled looks!!!)

  13. Dave – thanks. I saw the filming being done and spoke to a few people afterwards, so I will be in touch, and when it is finished, I'll put the word out on this blog and on Facebook.

  14. Rachel – great to hear from you! I really enjoyed last night's performance – especially as I left my history head and unwilling teenager at home this time! Alison Weir's book is probably the most accessible book on Isabella but sadly not the most well-researched – she often doesn't back up statements with any academic sources – mainly because there aren't any that exist to verify what she says. Therefore, a lot of the book tends to be her views and a lot of supposition without substance, However, saying that, she is very easy to read and most of what is in there is OK. That was interesting that you included the tension between her and Despenser. There is certainly no proof that he ever assaulted her physically in any way – just a loose mention of him having 'dishonoured' her. But in Medieval speak that could mean many things – it's all a bit ambiguous. Nevertheless, I do think that her intense hatred for Despenser (which was miles more than any she had for Gaveston) had to have some basis other than his greed, relationship with Edward etc.And yes, I certainly am passionate about this period – as you can probably guess (some have mentioned obsessed lol!) – so if you ever want to have a chat about Isabella – or if anyone else from the cast wants to continue their knowledge (even though the play is almost over) – I'd be glad to meet up for a coffee.I will be keeping in touch with the Rococo Players anyway as I want to publicise the DVD and maybe even help out in any way I can at times. I have seen 3 of their plays now and have loved them all 🙂

  15. Ceirseach says:

    True, Jules, but Alison Weir's less-than-accurate moments are usually due precisely to her sympathy. And therefore for a purpose like Rachel's, it may well be the best source for emotional accuracy. Isabella as she might have liked to see herself?

  16. Oh absolutely Ceirseach! I was going to say that but thought my comment had got too long as it was lol!

  17. Gabriele C. says:

    Oh dear, I'm not checking this blog for a few days and miss an influx of comments. ;)Dave and Rachel, thank you for the information. Right now the Fun Budget of my bank account is busy recovering from the purchase of Wagner's entire Ring of the Niblungs, but I'll get into contact as soon as it feels a bit healthier. :)Word verification: spankersSerioously. 😀

  18. LOL Gabriele – you see how sneaky this blog is? I shall be putting up detail of how to get hold of the DVD when it is done, both on the blog and on the website so don't worry, you won't miss out on it. I shall be getting one too 🙂

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