If Dexter has taught us anything it’s that when the plastic sheeting starts gets rolled out things are bound to get messy. Yet in Joe Hill-Gibbins production most of the mess comes before this moment, the cacophony replaced by a quiet, desperate tension, the appalling gentleness of Edward’s inevitable demise made all the more powerful by the noise and excess that came earlier.
Hill-Gibbins’ take on Marlowe has a similar chaotic, near operatic energy to his recent version of The Changeling for the Young Vic. But just as that lost some of its focus and intensity when taken from the smaller Maria studio and blown up and out to fill the Main House, this too feels a bit hyper-aware of the size of the space it’s required to fill.
The opening sequence has a kind of familiar gloss, an almost Donmar-ish aesthetic, as John Heffernan’s king sits upright on his throne, his crown gleaming against a cloth of gold. But when the curtain lifts we’re instead presented with a series of stage flats, MDF battlements, stripped-down, fragile, transitory. Lizzie Clachan’s design takes full advantage of the depth and height of the Olivier with Hill-Gibbins again making interesting use of closed doors, spaces into which we can’t quite see, rooms in which conspiracies can be hatched amid silver curls of cigarette smoke.
After the opening coronation scene, the production becomes increasingly stylistically layered, making much use of Brechtian title cards and video, running Headlong into Katie Mitchell territory. It’s an everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach, chock-full of references. Live recorded footage is used to convey a sense of up-the-nostril Blair Witch proximity to a world that might otherwise seem remote on the cavernous stage. One memorable sequence, which recalls the meta-theatrical playfulness of Rupert Goold’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, uses the external architecture of the National Theatre itself – its turrets and stairwells, its blocky concrete eminence – as a backdrop for the introduction of Spencer and Baldock. The cry of ‘drums’ becomes a defining one, with a throbbing, pulsing, humming running through things.
Yet at times it feels more like a tick-list of directorial influences rather than a cohesive universe. There are sinister helmeted henchmen – Three Kingdoms by way of Knightmare – and much gleeful anachronism. But this approach pays off in the end: as Edward’s balsa wood kingdom is toppled, the production stills itself too and the final scenes have a chilling and bleak power.
When fully robed in the opening scenes, Heffernan’s Edward combines the studied regal air of Eddie Redmayne’s Richard II with something of Disney’s other lion king; in the beginning he’s bratty and petulant, a foot stamper rather than a thumb-sucker, albeit one with a massive hard-on for Koyle Soller’s Gaveston, a drainpipe-jeaned yank outsider who makes a parkour-style entrance from the stalls, bounding onto the stage, wrapping himself around Edward’s body, locking lips. In an apt yet poignant piece of mirroring, Soller will later be the one to finish Edward when he returns as the assassin Lightbody. Despite the ominous expanse of plastic sheeting, there is no blood, just one lone broken man, the life leaking from him.
Good as both Heffernan and Soller are, they’re matched by Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s deeply charismatic Mortimer and by Vanessa Kirby, whose crimson Isabella has the calculating aspect of Cersei Lannister. Near mute in the first half of the play and wearing a wig last seen on Guy of Gisbourne in Maid Marian and her Merry Men, Bettrys Jones’ Prince Edward really comes to life in the last few scenes, to unnerving effect; there’s strong support too from Kirsty Bushell and Penny Layden in some creative examples of cross-gender casting.
The production might well place the visual ahead of the lyrical, it might take a craft knife to some of those ‘mighty lines’ but these plays aren’t going anywhere, they can take it. It does however fall short of the queasy, bloated brilliance of Hill-Gibbins’ The Changeling, but that’s perhaps because it keeps its foot hovering just over the brake, it never quite lets rip, it never quite floors it, even though it threatens to on occasion.
Edward II is part of the National’s Travelex £12 season.