A swinging jazz band sets the tone for Toby Frow’s ingenious production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. The band is playing in the foyer as the audience enters the Royal Exchange and they also provide a live soundtrack to the opening scene, as the stage fills with revellers at a smoky 1950s club.
The 1950s is the perfect decade in which to set Marlowe’s tale of the tortured (in more ways than one) monarch. It was the era that the establishment and the counter-culture began to collide and one in which the gay rights movement also began to find its voice. The play for the uninitiated, tells the story of the titular King who, on the death of his father, recalls his lover Gaveston from exile in France. But the presence of Gaveston causes discomfort amongst the King’s advisors (and – not surprisingly – with his Queen, Isabella) and sets off a series of machinations in the resulting struggle for power.
Frow’s direction is incredibly fast-paced, with the two hour running time passing in the blink of an eye. The change of sets is equally rapid, the scene continually switching from the opening jazz club, to Edward’s court, to an airport lounge, right up to the dungeon in which the unfortunate Edward meets his demise.
Chris New is quite brilliant as Edward, switching effortlessly from feckless and flamboyant in the first half to the gibbering, insane wreck he becomes by the time the play reaches its conclusion. He suffers considerably for his art, particularly in the production’s last half hour, where he is waterboarded, hooded and forced to stand in raw sewage before suffering the ultimate indignity of a red hot poker. Little wonder that he looks mildly traumatised during the curtain call.
Of the supporting cast, Sam Collings is excellent as the brash Gaveston, despite a tendency to shout his lines. Collings also has a chillingly creepy cameo as Edward’s assassin Lightborn, clad in white suit and fedora hat, while Emma Cunniffe portrays the hurt pride of Isabella perfectly. Young Jonah Rzeskiewicz also proves himself as a name to watch with a small part as the future Edward III, while Jolyon Coy is suitably slimy as the scheming Mortimer.
Frow (and the same creative team who produced last year’s production of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, also at the Royal Exchange) switches tempo in the second half, producing a climatic torture scene that will live long in the audience’s memory. This gear switch into much darker territory could have been jarring in less able hands, but Frow ensures the transition is smooth.
Although set in the ’50s, there are nods to more present-day concerns, particularly to the still-prevalent homophobia rife in the establishment; the scenes of Edward’s water-boarding have an inevitable resonance and the various conspiracies and Machiavellian manoeuvrings of Marlowe’s play also have a timeless quality. With the exception of Doctor Faustus, Marlowe is often overlooked in favour of his more famous contemporary, but Frow’s production shows his work to be equally malleable and transcendent: this is a gripping and exciting revival, true to the spirit of Marlowe’s play, yet also utterly contemporary.