A Pair Makes for a Great Play
By Christopher Marlowe
American Shakespeare Center, Blackfriars Playhouse, Staunton, Va.
Friday, September 26, 2014, C–5&6 (front middle stalls)
Directed by Jim Warren
King Edward (René Thornton Jr.) embraces Gaveston (Patrick Midgley) in the American Shakespeare Center production of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.
Let's see—here it is on the fifth page (of 10) in my pocket notebook: "WOW! Marlowe had balls."
I jotted that down during the American Shakespeare Center's production of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II at the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton, Va., and that notation wasn't even referring to the play's homosexual undertones (or overtones, really). I was astonished at how King Edward rails against the Church, talking of "superstitious taper-lights" in "antichristian churches" and threatening to slaughter priests and "enforce the papal towers to kiss the lowly ground." That's not all. In Marlowe's account of the troublesome reign of England's Edward II, the barons bash the doctrine of divine right succession and outright insult Edward to his face. Plus, the playwright aims his pen at the barons themselves for their inherited arrogance: "Base leaden earls that glory in your birth, go sit at home and eat your tenants' beef," says low-born, high-achiever Gaveston. Sure, Edward II recounts the early 14th century conflict over a government mismanaged by a wuss of a king, but in a play he wrote during the nationalistic-frenzied, post-Spanish Armada years of Elizabeth I's reign, Marlowe tackles homosexuality, class consciousness, and divine-right government. That's ballsy. And this Jim Warren-helmed production in turn tackles the play with intelligent theatricality while giving it an aesthete that visually references the same issues today.
Cojones usually come in pairs, you know.
Pioneer of the blank verse script and epic storytelling in Elizabethan theater, Marlowe at the time of his murder had not attained two capabilities that Shakespeare and other playwrights of the period would master: Constructing engaging plotlines and creating multidimensional characters. Marlowe comes close in both with Edward II, perhaps his last play, but he still tends toward excess in scenes, characters, and verbiage. The play centers on the relationship between Edward and Piers Gaveston and the havoc the king's attention on "his minion" creates throughout the court. The barons revolt, Edward waffles as he tries to have it both ways—keep his crown and his lover—and Gaveston is assassinated. That would be a spoiler alert except that it all happens before the bell clangs signaling the intermission. What's left? The political maneuverings that bring about Edward's defeat, his abdication of the crown to his son, and his own assassination. It's all so episodic, and every character speaks their every mighty thought with mighty words that the audience could easily be hammered into a dullness by Marlowe's ever-pounding two-by-four of bombastic blank verse.
The ASC, however, has a good track record of making great theater out of Marlowe's plays: Tamburlaine the Great, also directed by Warren, was a highlight of the company's 2011 season, and the Actors' Renaissance Season production (sans director) of Dido, Queen of Carthage in 2012 remains a favorite among some Blackfriars regulars, and this year's touring troupe has a hit with Doctor Faustus. Edward II keeps ASC's success-with-Marlowe streak going.
To illustrate how Warren and company turn Marlowe's dry text into quenching theater, here's the script of a scene in Edward II in which, after the king and the barons have forged a compromise, Gaveston returns from exile (Edward had previously anointed Gaveston with several titles):
King Edward: Will none of you salute my Gaveston?
Lancaster: Salute him! Yes.—Welcome, Lord Chamberlain!
Mortimer Junior: Welcome is the good Earl of Cornwall!
Warwick: Welcome, Lord Governor of the Isle of Man!
Pembroke: Welcome, Master Secretary!
Edmund, Earl of Kent (and Edward's brother): Brother, do you hear them?
King Edward: Still will these earls and barons use me thus?
Gaveston: My lord, I cannot brook these injuries.
Queen Isabella [Aside]: Ay me, poor soul, when these begin to jar!
Clearly, something is amiss here for the royal party to be so angry. ASC's staging makes clear the moment's substance, as, for example, Lancaster (John Harrell) "salutes" Gaveston by rubbing the hilt of his own sword in a phallic gesture, and Warwick (Allison Glenzer) emphasizes the last word in the title she uses, Lord Governor of the Isle of Man. 'Tis subtle gay bashing, and we get that (and even snicker at it).
In using the staging conventions of Shakespeare's own company—bare stage, no lighting effects, few props—ASC relies on costuming to establish a "setting." Designer Victoria Depew dresses the barons in three-piece suits reminiscent of the 1890s, the dress code of the robber barons, and for armor they strap on quilted shoulder pads and arm guards. Isabella, Edward's queen, wears an early 1960s-era cocktail dress. Those in the court who are not noble-born (such as the Spencers) and other commoners are in modern clothes. Edward and Gaveston are beyond modern. The royal Edward is decked out in a blue vest, long red and gold tapestry-like coat, white pleated pants, and a giant gold cravat. Gaveston is wearing a tight, scoop-neck t-shirt bearing a barely visible ink-sketched pattern on the chest, pink clam-digger pants, blue coat with embroidered roses, and a knife scabbard strategically hanging off the front of his belt with erotic implications. Around his neck is a large medallion that, we learn later, contains his own portrait; Edward wears one, too, which they exchange at one of their partings. Through such costuming, we automatically assign ideologies of conservative right and liberal left, an underlying tone in this production's treatment of the homosexual relationship between Edward and Gaveston.
More vital is how the costuming points to the demarcation between the wealthy haves—the 1 percenters—and the rest of society, which in this instance includes the king. The Mortimers, Lancaster, Warwick, and Pembroke may engage in subtle gay bashing and turn away in disgust when Edward and Gaveston "embrace" with a deep, passionate kiss, but the epithets they openly use against Gaveston are slave, peasant, and other such references to his commoner status. Note this parade of insults when Edward makes Gaveston an earl and Lord High Chamberlain.
- Mortimer Senior (James Keegan): "What man of noble birth can brook this sight?"
- Pembroke (Jonathan Holtzman): "Can kingly lions fawn on creeping ants?"
- Warwick: "Ignoble vassal, that like Phaëthon, aspir'st unto the guidance of the sun."
- Mortimer Junior (Gregory Jon Phelps), who is not just a hothead in his own right but a scion who espouses his privileges in all things: "We will not be thus outfaced and over-peered."
These lords express the same distaste in like terms about the Spencers when the king elevates them to peerages. Marlowe's depiction of class disparity is the play's ultimate social commentary, and Warren brings this home with frock coats and jeans.
This production's ultimate triumph, however, is in the compelling portrayals of its characters, starting, literally, with Patrick Midgley as Gaveston. Marlowe tends to open his plays with long expository soliloquys that test any actor's mettle and the audience's attention span, and for Edward II it is Gaveston who pulls opening intro duties, describing the death of Edward's father (who had banished Gaveston, seeking to break up his relationship with the then–Prince Edward), the new king's coronation, and the letter calling him home from banishment. Midgely doesn't merely get us through this 70-line scene; he seduces the audience into the play, lying on his back, head drooped over the stage's edge, as he regales himself with all the delights he will lay upon the king of England. In this speech alone, Midgley's Gaveston comes across as a villain—and as heroically loyal—and as ridiculously whimsical—and as politically astute—and as a doter on beauty—and as a realist: I saw each of these facets of his personality emerge as he spoke, each fascinating, all forming a glittering whole with a gleam in his blue eyes. I'm not sure if Gaveston has a soul or if, rather than pure love, he is merely manipulating the king for his own advancement. However, Midgley ensures that the play's richest line comes off believably, though he's not the one to speak it: when Mortimer Junior asks the king, "Why should you love him whom the world hates so?" Edward replies, "Because he loves me more than all the world."
Gaveston (Patrick Midgley) reacts to the insulting English barons, such as the Earl of Pembroke (Jonathan Holtzman, right background), as the king's brother, Edmund (Benjamin Reed, left) observes the action in the American Shakespeare Center's production of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II at the Blackfriars Playhouse. Photo by Lindsey Walters, American Shakespeare Center.
René Thornton Jr. playing Edward not only speaks that line believably, he speaks it as a man who believes nothing else. Thornton has wanted to play Edward his entire career, and his experience and incomparable verse-speaking skills combine to deliver a performance that goes to a depth of dimensions Marlowe merely points to. Edward has been a divine-right prince all his life and loves nothing more than the joy Gaveston brings him. He knows no temperance and doesn't know how to compromise either politically or personally. He impetuously lays honors upon anybody and everybody to suit the mood of his occasions, and he turns despotic on mere thought. As a king, he believes his will is his strength, but when your ordained purpose is to lead the nation there's not much strength in the will only to live a luxuriating life with people who dote on you. It would be easy to despise such a gadfly king, and it would be easy to dismiss him, but Thornton molds what could easily be a cartoonish character into a singularly piteous man who has the maturity of a 5-year-old boy.
In the play's second half, Marlowe goes to extremes to show the abuse heaped upon Edward, the torture he endures, and his murder that is, literally, the ultimate pain in the ass (it happens on stage, but he is covered by a sheet). Marlowe is amping up the ewww! factor with these scenes, aided by Glenzer's portrayal of prison keeper Gourney displaying a Goodfellas glee in his sadistic treatment of the king. Nevertheless, Thornton never lets these muck-yuck episodes obfuscate the psychological abuse wracking his Edward's heart and mind. "Grief makes me lunatic" he says in the abdication scene (a forerunner in many ways to Shakespeare's abdication scene in Richard II) and he curls up in a corner of the stage like a child stuck in a play room devoid of his toys. Edward keeps changing his mind almost line to line in these later scenes, creating comic annoyance for everybody else on stage; but for Thornton's Edward this is the internal pendulum of emotions, swinging from despair to a lingering sense of injustice, from memories of a life of privilege to a death-facing state of bewilderment. "What are kings, when regiment is gone, but perfect shadows in a sunshine day?" he says with eyes lost in incomprehension.
Midgley returns to the stage now playing Lightborne, the assassin who, with Bobby Flay delight, lists his recipes for murder but keeps at least one ingredient a secret. At no point does Midgley confuse his two portrayals (this actor is used to playing three or four disparate parts per play), but we can't help seeing irony in Thornton's Edward finding in Lightborne the same false sense of succor and confidence that he knew with Gaveston.
The rival for Edward's affection—at least public Edward—is his wife, Queen Isabella, whom Sarah Fallon plays as a woman of desperation. She genuinely loves her husband and is heartbroken by his "embracing" of Gaveston, but she needs his political power to keep her and their son safe. That she eventually becomes Mortimer Junior's lover and a political Machiavellian herself is a matter of survival with a bit of arrogance creeping in at the end. However, if you speak of arrogance, you must speak of Phelps's Mortimer Junior. What seems to be stout honor at first turns out to be unabashed ambition. He would be king, but as that's out of his legal reach, he becomes the next best thing, lord protector to the newly crowned Edward III and consort to the queen mother. Such is Mortimer Junior's pride that when the young king accuses him of murdering Edward II, Mortimer refuses to "sue for life unto a paltry boy"—not a wise choice of words to a king who may only be 14 years old but would become one of the most powerful kings in England's history (and France's history, too). Yet, the subsequently condemned Mortimer Junior departs with Gekkoian logic: "Base Fortune, now I see that in thy wheel there is a point to which, when men aspire, they tumble headlong down; that point I touched, and seeing there was no place to mount up higher, why should I grieve at my declining fall?" Though Mortimer Junior has turned into such a despicable character, we almost applaud Phelps's verve here.
With all of these outsized characters, one performance stands out specifically because it is mostly accomplished in the background: Benjamin Reed as Edward's brother Edmund. From the side he watches the king with a mixture of familial affection and growing alarm. When Edward anoints Gaveston with his various titles, Kent remarks, "Brother, the least of these may well suffice for one of greater birth than Gaveston." Reed speaks this line gently, knowing any remonstration will not be taken kindly by his brother (and isn't). In this way Reed shows Edmund trying to remain duteous to the crown, loyal to his family's place, but cognizant of the government of England. He ends up being arrested for treason by all factions at various points in the play simply because he tries to steer a clear course of national stability, and we get that sturdy demeanor in the understated yet perfectly poised portrayal by Reed.
Sturdy as a rock, you might say. And so, amazingly, is this production. Edward II could easily be boring or slide into farce, but Warren and his experienced actors keep such an astute grip on Marlowe and his play that it ends up holding fast to our hearts as much as to our minds.
October 16, 2014