Review: John Heffernan and Kyle Soller pucker up in Edward II at the National Theatre
And, where productions of Shakespeare's Richard II only very occasionally hint that the King's relationship with his favourites might be homosexual, here Edward II's is saliva-swappingly obvious. Whether it was so in Marlowe's time I don't know, but what the National has created is a very passionate, energetic and refreshing piece utilising multimedia which bursts the production out of the confines of the traditional performance space.
The stage has a simple carpeted dias behind which are the backs of scenery flats which make up a room we can't see inside but for glimpses through windows and doors. Around the edges and with views right to the back of the cavernous Olivier stage are racks of costumes, props and pieces of furniture.
The play is launched with a count down of images of English monarchs projected on two huge screens either side of the stage. Starting with the Queen we head back through history arriving at the image of the medieval King Edward II as played by John Heffernan. On the stage is the man himself, in regal splendor about to be crowned, accompanied by a rousing chorus of the national anthem.
Celebratory feelings are soon forgotten when the King withdraws with his nobles to an ante-chamber - the 'room' at the back - to discuss matters of state. What goes on inside is relaid by hand-held video cameras via the screens. The root of the disquiet is the King's desire to have his favourite Gaveston (Kyle Soller) returned from exile, something the nobles are vehemently opposed to.
Lines are drawn as the King battles with his nobles, his wife and sister over Gaveston - bestowing titles and positions of power on the latter just to make matters worse. There are plots and counter plots and you realise pretty quickly that this is all going to end in tears.
The first half sometimes feels like barely contained chaos with Gaveston's arrival. He sets the tone climbing, jumping and running among the audience with a vigor and verve that bubbles over into knowing looks at the audience, gloating glances at his foes and a general cheeky self-importance. The King and his lover frolic, gambol and wrestle, often with champagne bottle in hand as if unfettered from years of repressed emotion.
We first meet the other favourites, Spencer (Nathaniel Martello-White) and Baldock (Ben Adis), via video link from outside on one of the National Theatre's terraces. The backdrop affords a nice little contemporary play on words at the expense of The Shed (thanks to @goldenavenger for pointing that one out). Spencer dolls out fashion advice to Baldock from what looks like one of the sound booths as the two make their way through the back stage corridors to the King.
Edward might be blindly sealing his own doom but the champagne-soaked revelry and irreverent fun between him and his favourites make for addictive viewing and you can't but help feel a little bereft when it inevitably ends.
Events take a more serious turn in the second half. The ante-chamber having been symbolically destroyed in the first half, the stage now represents the ensuing disorder with bits of sets and props piled high so that the thrown now sits on a seemingly precarious platform.
Edward's bratish behaviour in the first half doesn't make his demise any easier to watch. Director Joe Hill-Gibbins has John Heffernan on a slow, shuffled and limping parade back and forth around the recesses of the stage, goaded by his captors, and all captured by the hand-held cameras as the politics play out centre stage. Heffernan presents a sorry, broken and tragic figure that plucks the sympathy chords and fills you with dread when the plastic sheeting goes down.
This production isn't going to be to everyone's taste indeed I overheard an elderly couple at the interval complaining about 'having to watch TV' and they didn't return for the second half. And while this was an early preview and there is a little bit of polishing and possibly reining-in to be done, it was great to see something a little bolder and contemporary on the Olivier stage.
At its core are superb central performances that push through the high-jinks and stage shenanigans and I can't wait to see it again next week.
John Heffernan was in the Emperor and the Galilean with Andrew Scott who was in Cock with Mr W. And for a little cheeky extra: Mr Heffernan was in Hothouse with Simon Russell Beale who must have rubbed shoulders with Mr W at the Privates on Parade opening night party which I know both were at.