Features Essays Published 15 October 2013

Dark, Then Light, Then Dark Again

The dramaturgy of Edward II.

Zoe Svendsen

In my previous article on The Changeling and dramaturgy, I quoted Hildegaard de Vuyst: “’dark, then light’, that’s dramaturgy”. The work that I do with director Joe Hill-Gibbins is rooted in the desire to understand the forms of expression offered by a play, with the aim of realising that text as fully as possible theatrically for a contemporary audience. The dramaturgy of Edward II explicitly bears out de Vuyst’s definition through its flick-of-a-switch rhythmic oppositions, as Marlowe deploys structural and often sudden shifts between genres, styles, and forms. What is fascinating is the way in which this dramaturgical complexity directly expresses the situation of the characters.

Interpreting situation – that is, the environment of, and pressures on, the characters – is a standard practice in modern theatre. What is less common is recognising how in Renaissance plays patterns of rhythm and spatial staging express that situation as strongly as any individual line of the text. We – director Joe Hill-Gibbins, assistant director Jeff James, and I – edited the play considerably (ultimately cutting around 6,500 words, or around a quarter of the text). What we didn’t do is seek to change its fundamental form into something more familiar or digestible. Instead, we took Marlowe’s formal dexterity as our cue, seeking to harness a variety of theatrical media – lighting, movement, video (live relay and prerecorded), live music, sound, and the organisation of the space through scenography – to express the play’s structure in ways appropriate for each moment. Much textual editing took place in rehearsal as we discovered visual and spatial expressions of the play’s themes, ideas and aims – and therefore didn’t require their verbal description as well.

We came to realise that Edward II explores three different situations – the barons vs Gaveston, the civil war, and what we called “Edward in hell” – and that each is expressed through a new structure, with new rules of engagement. I’ll use examples from each to explore the relationship between situation, dramaturgical structure and performance in our staging of Edward II.

The Story of Gaveston: psychology as image not action

The major challenge for modern production is how the first third of the play, depicting the situation of the barons versus Gaveston, is expressed through a structure that ricochets between drama and rhetoric. Edward wants Gaveston and the distractions he brings; the barons want a strong and focussed ruler. The stakes are high, and the tone is dramatic, but the underlying scaffolding is unfamiliar: the conflict doesn’t change the situation, and so somehow it also felt on first reading fundamentally undramatic.

The scenes actually have the dramaturgy of stasis before a pub brawl. Small flurries of attack, held back by others on each side; a long phase of incredibly high tension with no relief. What changes over the course of this first third is not the characters’ aims, but their capacity to act on them. What is not even thinkable at the start gradually becomes actionable. When the barons first start to threaten Edward, their colourful language feels metaphorical:

…either change your mind
Or look to see the throne where your should sit
To float in blood
By the end, those verbal flourishes have become statements of intent.

Without change to the situation, this first third seemed to be going in circles – several scenes almost mirror one another, with the repeated return and banishment of Gaveston. The repetitions offer a deliberate comment on the circularity of history, and our breakthrough came with realising that dramatic effect is produced here through accumulation, not change. Once we understood that Marlowe’s emphasis is on accumulation (a rhetorical device not only in the language, but also in the structure), we suddenly saw how the situation is expressed through a series of psychological images. Such images include: the barons plotting with the archbishop of Canterbury; Edward and his lover Gaveston together on the throne, with the barons recoiling in horror; Edward rejecting his queen, Isabella, in favour of Gaveston; a clandestine early encounter between Isabella and Mortimer (who will be responsible for Edward’s death).

For Marlowe’s images do not exist so much in his verbal imagery – which is sparse and judiciously placed in Edward II – but in the way that the text invites staging. This was the impetus for our use of live relay video to explore the harmony-shattering blurring of the private and the public. Further, to Marlowe’s images we added one more: the production starts not with Gaveston, but with a coronation. An image of Edward in perfect harmony with state and family, pomp and ceremony, everyone in their rightful position – no place for Gaveston. The situation of enmity is established so immediately in the original play, we felt the need for a glimpse of the contrasting world: the state hierarchy as it should be.

EDWARD 2nd by Marlowe,            , Writer - Christopher Marlowe, Director - Joe Hill-Gibbins, Set Design - Lizzie Clachan, Costumes - Alex Lowde, Lighting - James Farncombe, The National Theatre, 2013, Credit: Johan Persson - www.perssonphotography.com /

Rhetoric vs Drama

Dramaturgy ultimately is about how audience attention is focussed in performance. Marlowe’s stage images accumulate to enable an insight into the characters’ situation that might be called psychological, but which is created through external pictures. This is something that can be hard to handle in our modern mindset – particularly in the rehearsal room, where staging plays is often based on a detailed examination of the characters’ interior lives. As a result of this emphasis on inner pyschology, audiences tend to watch as relationships unfold over time between people – seeking to understand reactions as well as speech. Staging rhetoric (where the emphasis is on the speaker alone) therefore feels static: it doesn’t require situation to be taken into account in the same way.

Through our rehearsal “jamming” we were able to segue (as the play does) between rhetorical drama and psychological drama. What we call “jamming” is a type of freeform improvisation in which everything except the actual words of the text is up for grabs. What is the difference then between a rhetorical and a psychological structure? An example may be the best way of illustrating this. After the barons reluctantly agree to allow Gaveston back, Edward welcomes him with a classical simile:

Thy absence made me droop and pine away;
For, like the lovers of fair Danae,
when she was locked up in an ivory tower,
Desired her more, and waxed outrageous,
So did it sure with me;

Gaveston responds in kind. In modern psychological terms, the poetry produces a hiatus in the momentum of the scene, one that leaves all other characters (the four barons, Kent, Isabella, prince Edward) hanging. All eyes are on Edward as he speaks, and then on Gaveston. Yet it is, for this moment, as though Gaveston and Edward are alone; any reaction from others will distract from a focus on the intensity of their engagement. Therefore although they are technically in public, the rhetoric produces a kind of private bubble. That this is awkward for the other characters is something that cannot be ignored by a modern audience used to recognising situation not only through characters’ words, but their non-verbal responses.

Thus in our production Gaveston and Edward seal their rhetorical embrace with an actual kiss. An absurdly, aggressively, delightfully long kiss. At first the hiatus of the scene is sustained – the other characters can’t leave, they are subject to the King’s will – but having had their eyes fixed on Gaveston, they look away, or down, or out to the audience. Kent notices the young prince staring and makes him look away. Isabella is in a paroxysm of mortification. The audience, their attention pulled by these reactions, start to take in that this beautifully written private moment has taken place entirely in public. Whether homophobic (a Renaissance reading?) or horrified/mortified at public adultery (a modern reading), the staging allows the moment to segue from rhetoric to psychology, from a renaissance structure to a modern structure, doubly shoring up the contradictions between public and private, love and obligation, hierarchy and humanity.

The Civil War

Only the death of Gaveston breaks the stasis and must produce a new situation. The structure reflects this; it is now civil war between the King and his enemies – which has come to include his sibling Kent, and the Queen. Thirteen scenes serve the purpose of compressing about fifteen years of history into a flurry of plot points, with little in the way of psychology. In the early 1590s, soon after the publication of Holinshed’s Chronicles, the definitive history of the medieval period, it may have seemed imperative to stick closely to the facts. What we decided to do is stick closely to Marlowe’s spin on those facts, and excise detail that didn’t help express the situation of the characters.

Feeling that structurally, this section was the least successful in expressing the situation, we borrowed from the imagistic form of the first section, whilst retaining the increased shutterspeed of scenic change that Marlowe uses to characterise England’s descent into chaos. This entailed excavating extraordinary speeches from dramatically flabby scenes and streamlining by amalgamating characters. In the original text, for example, Edward, surrounded by his flatterers, vows revenge after being told at great length of Gaveston’s death, which we have already witnessed. In our staging, Warwick’s victory whoop as Gaveston is dragged off to die becomes an image of all the barons celebrating. Edward stumbles through the party, and picks up Gaveston’s discarded jacket. Catatonic grief becomes inchoate anger, as he vows revenge:

If I be England’s King, in lakes of gore
Your headless trunks, your bodies will I trail,
That you may drink your fill, and quaff in blood.
and stain my royal standard with the same
That so my bloody colours may suggest
Remembrance of revenge immortally
On your accursed traitorous progeny

No longer embedded in an undramatic scene, we watch as Edward moves from private grief to a public statement of intent: the avowal of revenge, and the salutation of Spencer as Gaveston’s substitute. The problem (for the barons) is palpably no longer Gaveston, but the King himself.

Edward in hell: drama at last

Once Edward is captured, a new situation is established: Mortimer is on the ascendant and Edward is in hell (metaphorically, and possibly literally). Only this third and final section is delineated using anything approaching a formally dramatic structure. With the forced resignation of Edward, Marlowe compresses what is only a few months historically into a continuous action that appears to take place over a matter of days – a distinct contrast from the passage of years earlier in the play. The genre has switched from history to tragedy.

Having seen Edward over and over in situations where he is forced to react in ways unbecoming to a king, the dramatic structure of the scene in which he must resign his crown finally allows him space to show who he is. It is a clever trick of reframing that shows Edward as a complex, sympathetic human being. For despite being the title role, this is the first scene in which Edward is at the dramatic centre, and only then does the character display the dignity, humility, and conviction that suggest a King. The subtle brilliance of John Heffernan’s performance is that he doesn’t rebel against this structure and seek the actor’s limelight too soon; through his earlier ensemble playing, the character of Edward is able to emerge at this point as truly at the heart of the play, and to become as heartbreakingly sympathetic as he was previously capricious and self-serving.

Fundamentally, the dramaturgy of this production of Edward II has often involved a translation of verbal to visual, and a modification of the text to enable those transitions. Although it is a truism that contemporary audiences are better versed in watching than listening, our motivation for the staging stemmed directly from the demands of Marlowe’s text. It seems to me imperative to engage with the situation of the play, and the forms of its language, in attempting to serve as fully as we can the writer’s representation of the world. In Marlowe, this is extraordinarily dark – and I hope we have created a staging that lives up to that challenge.

Edward II runs at the National Theatre until 26th October.

Photos: Johan Persson.


Zoe Svendsen is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine



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