A Night at the Theater with Edward II

Over the Thanksgiving weekend, I got to see a performance of Marlowe’s Edward II at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company. I’m not a theater critic and can’t act my way out of a paper bag myself, so instead of a review per se, here are just a few thoughts on the Edward II production.

First (she said smugly), since I attended the play alone and therefore splurged on my ticket, I had a great seat–second row center, close enough to see the actors very well but just far enough away to avoid being spat on. The woman behind me told her companion that she had the best seat, but I think mine was better. So there.

The play was staged in 1920’s dress. I rather like modern-dress productions of old plays if they’re done well, and this one was. Isabella and Gaveston’s wife, Margaret de Clare, looked very nice in their flapper outfits. Most of the men were dressed in military attire, except for Edward II and Gaveston. The 1920’s setting also meant that guns were used on occasion: the unfortunate Spencer (Hugh le Despenser the younger) and Baldock were shot to death, although Gaveston and Mortimer were beheaded. The only jarring note was when the talk turned to religion; it was odd to have English people dressed in 1920’s garb speak of the Pope’s authority.

The play opened at Edward I’s funeral, with the little Edward III and Isabella silently offering their condolences to Edward II. This was a nice touch, since the play closes at Edward II’s funeral.

In the play, one of the barons’ biggest complaints about Edward II is his fondness for masques and the like, and Gaveston’s return was accordingly staged as a production number featuring men in skimpy outfits and in women’s clothing, with Gaveston finally borne in wearing wings. (Spencer, as I recall, was in a yellow spangly number. If you’re at Tewkesbury Abbey and hear rolling sounds coming from the real Hugh’s tomb, that’s probably why.)

I rather liked the actress who played Margaret de Clare, portrayed here as a squealing ingenue who assumes a priceless facial expression when rather late in the game, she finally realizes that there’s something odd going on between Uncle Ned and her husband. It was also a good touch to have Margaret attending her uncle’s funeral in the final scene.

I enjoyed the actor who played the Earl of Kent. I thought he did a good job of conveying Kent’s hopelessly torn loyalties.

When Gaveston comes home from his second exile, there’s a big sign reading, “Welcome Home Gaveston” onstage. I don’t know why, but that gave me the giggles. I liked that sign.

Edward III is played by two actors; a young boy and a young man. Shortly before his crowning (and probably about the time of the boy actor’s bedtime), Edward III’s growing maturity is depicted by substituting the older actor for the younger one onstage. I thought that was clever on the part of the director, and also helped in showing the passage of time, which Marlowe compresses considerably.

Finally, Gaveston, having been executed, reappears several times in angel’s wings to offer comfort to Edward, most importantly in the red-hot poker scene (where the wings also obscure the poker business). This could have been silly in the wrong hands, but it was quite moving, especially when Gaveston bears his friend’s body offstage.

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed this play, which doesn’t get produced in the US that often outside of the largest cities. It’s playing through January 6, so if you’re in the DC area (or can get there), check it out!

6 thoughts on “A Night at the Theater with Edward II”

  1. Sounds great! I do like the idea of Piers in angel wings, comforting Ed and bearing off his body. Wish I could see the production.

  2. Sounds a great production, Susan. It’s always refreshing to get a different take on a play. The best example I can quote was seeing Fiona Shaw playing Richard in Shakespeare’s Richard II in London. She was so believable: nice twist when in Shakespeare’s time men played the female parts!

  3. Just goes to show that while Edward I died in a military camp, Edward II managed to live in millitary “camp”.

  4. I have friends in that production – the Archbishop of Canterbury and Edward’s brother, among others. Sounds like they’re having a great time. Last time I worked with either of them it was at Chicago Shakespeare, in Merchant. Good to see them getting around…

  5. Susan Higginbotham

    Alianore, wish you could too! There’s a production in New York too; must be something in the air. Don’t know if I can see Mortimer played by an actress, though, which seems to be the case in NYC.

    Lucy, that’s a production I would have loved to see! I’ve been in the mood to see Richard III (the play, that is) these days).

    Nan, LOL!

    David, tell your friends I really enjoyed the acting! The actor who played Edward’s brother was one of my favorites.

  6. It does sound a good production! Though, having met Hugh Despenser in The Traitor’s Wife I have to say I can’t really see him in yellow spangles :-).

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