In medieval times, the truism of politics as a blood sport was often a literal statement that inspired the famous history plays of William Shakespeare. However, this theatre company takes a less-trodden path bringing to life a play by Shakespeare’s contemporary Christopher Marlowe, and has put together an entertaining play that is surprisingly accessible for its age.
Edward II (John McKenzie) ascends to the Throne of England and thus enables his dear companion, Gaveston (Mark-Anthony Del Brocco), to return him. However, his arrogant manner and the King’s generosity of titles to him breeds the contempt of the nobles, especially Mortimer Junior (Joel Szaefer), and the duplicitous Queen Isabelle (Kristin Thomas) plays this to her advantage. What follows is a violent schism that rocks the kingdom to its core with a conflict few survive.
As classic as Shakespeare is, his plays can be a challenge to get into with their arcane language and intricate plotting. In that regard, Marlowe’s play is remarkably more easy on both those accounts, considering it is the one of the first history plays in the English language. For instance, the basic plot is a relatively straightforward story of medieval political intrigue and the dialogue is less flowery and more utilitarian than Shakespeare’s poetics. On the other hand, it lends itself to a variety of interpretations, such as however you want to consider the exact relationship of Edward and Gaveston in the story. So, while experiencing a play of its age is not exactly casual viewing, it’s a good introduction of the era without the Shakespearean embellishments.
Furthermore, the players are equal to this material, with John McKenzie having a fierce belligerence as the title character as he stubbornly tries to balance his companionship whims with political reality. Just seeing him lose his balance with the death of Gaveston and retaliate is a compelling tragedy, his political freefall ultimately destroying him. Del Brocco neatly complements him as Gaveston with his wit spoiled by an arrogant crassness and self-indulgence that makes him an open target for the King’s enemies, yet he still has a sympathetic air that allows the actor to drive home the impact of his fate and the larger tragedy it drives.
For his part Szaefer creates an ideal antagonist as Mortimer, who lets his relatively petty resentments fester into treason with the right persuasion. Unfortunately, Thomas is confined to working a one-dimensional role as best she can as a Queen resentfully working her options, until she finds herself in a deadly corner of no escape. In opposition, Damon Muma shines as Edmund of Kent, the King’s brother who tries to straddle the line of loyalty to the Kingdom and betraying his brother with his self-destructive desires. When he makes his decision, it makes what the King is losing all the more apparent. Finally, Anna Lee-Diemert has a neatly understated role as Prince Edward, who keeps his role as the puppet for his mother’s ambitions until she goes too far while putting him in the position to respond to that. Just seeing Lee-Diemert display that kind of political steel under the cover of such apparent naivete is a special surprise to cap off the show.
Finally, one of the most appealing elements is the stagecraft’s artful minimalism. The only significant prop is a throne and the play otherwise is a plain black box concept that depends almost entirely on the performances to make it work. The major exceptions are the well-timed sound effects granting a sense of scale to the setting that a simple production like this cannot provide visually. In addition, there is some good music to give the play a touch of arty class, although it seems to have a Scottish sword dancing sequence in an Elizabethan English play when those cultures were notable distinctive for their time. Finally, the costuming is superb, with black leathers and sparkling sequins competing with each other for visual dominance with intricate tattoos colouring the characters’ appearances. The clash gives the story a punk sensibility as a kind of guerrilla theatre from long ago, determined to tweak the royal powers that be.
When you consider that William Shakespeare’s work is so well-trodden because the general public simply doesn’t know of alternatives, seeing this company perform Christopher Marlowe’s work is not so much a breath of fresh air, but a release from classic theatrical suffocation. With such a detour being so well performed, I hope I see this company explore it again in the future.