Sydney Never Does Marlowe

Edward II by Sport for Jove

An early modern theatre fan in Sydney does not expect to be catered to with any expansiveness. Quite a lot of Shakespeare happens in this city each year, but the average theatre-goer would be forgiven for thinking there were no other playwrights working at the same time. If you dig back far enough, Belvoir and Bell Shakespeare have each done Jonson’s The Alchemist, the STC gave Jules Wright at shot at The Revenger’s Tragedy sometime in the 90s, and later hired Gale Edwards to stage Webster’s The White Devil, because she had made a success of it at Stratford. The only Marlowe I can recall is Bell’s 2011 adaptation of Dr Faustus. I may have forgotten a couple, or been out of the country when they happened, I’d be happy to hear about it in the comments. Not only do we miss out on a whole world of plays with virtues in their own right because of this smallness of vision, but Shakespeare enthusiasts lose the chance to see the way his plays worked within an industry and a tradition, and to see what ideas he mined, responded to and elaborated upon.

Kit Marlowe’s Edward II shows us what model Shakespeare was working with when he wrote Richard II. Richard is more subtle, much more philosophical, but also at some level less daring. The openness with which Edward’s love for Gaviston is expressed by him and discussed by the other characters shows up how cautious the language is in many plays, past and present. Skilled cutting helped shape a muscular, driven story out of what could have been an unwieldily series of political conflicts. Cutting is such a crucial, necessarily invisible art, and this example was expert.

Middle aged, blonde man in evening dress, undone tie, bare feet, seated on a wooden throne holding a sword.

Julian Garner as Edward II, image via Sport for Jove website

Julian Garner has developed beautifully as an actor in these past few years, particularly vocally. A less masculine Edward, with a less resonant voice could so easily have slipped into whining clichés of effeminacy, given that the bulk of his part in the first half is given to the one repeating theme of how he cannot be denied his love. It is refreshing to watch passion between two men given such frank urgency on stage, and Michael Whalley’s vulpine agility made him perfectly cast, as the pair appeared both a contrast and a match. Doubling Edward’s lover and his murderer was a shrewd artistic move, allowing for echoes in the blocking that emphasise the love-as-destruction theme. There was an elasticity in Edward’s relationship with the audience, as he stormed through his emotional reactions to events, that bespeaks an admirable confidence. Trusting the audience to be capable of feeling sympathetic, understanding, revolted, perplexed and pitying towards the same character in a succession of moments is what makes for immersive, visceral theatre.

A solid ensemble was helped by supportive attention to detail in the design. A crisp Eton collar, for example, instantly communicated ‘snotty little precocious boy’, letting us know straight away who Gabriel Fancourt was supposed to be, despite being an adult actor cast as a child. Usually when a character has an abrupt change of personality like the Queen in this play, switching from despairing love and loyalty to vicious machination, it looks like overly-functional writing. In this case, however, it was all too easy to imagine how a person might make that shift once they were fed up enough with being treated like garbage. Edward’s brother Kent, modified to be his sister here, is the play’s most subtle and sympathetic role. Like Brutus in Julius Caesar or Enobarbus in Antony and Cleopatra, the torment of a loyal soul who finds themselves betraying a beloved companion when his outrageous behaviour becomes too much is a compelling trope. Expression of that conflict was given tremendous nuance here by Angela Bauer, acting her heart out. Bauer is clearly Australia’s answer to Janet McTeer, it would be great to see her given a central role.

Edward II showed that actors who know how to speak verse with honesty and commitment do not need those skills to be limited to familiar material. I hope that a sinewy, dynamic production like this will help encourage more ventures in Marlowe, Lyly, Dekker, Fletcher, Ford, Middleton. Maybe even Elizabeth Cary or Mary Wroth – hey, a girl can dream.

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