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Frontispiece for 'Edward II' (1594)

Arriving early is a must for Edward II. I turned up half an hour before the performance to find a jazz band and a period costumed ensemble in full swing.  Also, scattered around the theatre were different coloured flyers with various emotive messages quoted from Marlowe’s play. However, out of context, the quotes read like Orwellian propaganda. The effect of these pre-performance distractions is toimmerse the audience in the 1950’s Machiavellian world that director Toby Frow has re-imagined for the play.

                            The complete set of Royal Exchange Theatre Flyers for ‘Edward II’ by Christopher Marlowe

Edward II begins, surprisingly enough, in a jazz club filled with revellers. In a cinematic freeze frame, where only Piers Gaveston and the messenger move, King Edward II’s letter is delivered:

‘My father is deceased; come, Gaveston,

And share the kingdom with thy dearest friend.’ (I.i, lines 1 & 2)

The tense opener establishes Gaveston as a hedonistic upstart who the king showers with gold and titles,  played vibrantly by Samuel Collings. Their erotic relationship is emphasised by the absence of Lady Margaret De Clare, Gaveston’s betrothed, from the production. It also makes Gaveston more dangerous as a free agent let loose in the king’s court that the Earl of Lancaster, Earl of Warwick, Archbisop of Canterbury, Mortimer Senior and Mortimer first want banished then decapitated.

The production makes excellent use of the 1950’s setting. Various lamps descend from above as well as an automated train timetable that King Edward anxiously consults in anticipation of Gaveston’s return from France. The costumes are equally striking. King Edward II’s coronation is a colourful array of red and silver. The police uniforms are the nostalgic dark blue of the London Bobby with the distinctive bulbous helmet. Sound is also important as wirelesses unexpectedly crackle into life with haunting deadpan broadcasts reminiscent of The King’s Speech (2010).

Emma Cunniffe is wonderful as the long suffering Queen Isabella. Throughout the production, her worn expression captures the mixture of emotions towards her wayward husband. Her love for him is shown by her pained countenance. Until the burden of responsibility caused by his obsession with Gaveston and the neglect of his kingdom leads her to plot against him.

An interesting departure from the play is revealed in a seemingly minor detail. When Gaveston is forced to leave England, King Edward exchanges rings with his favourite rather than the portraits in Marlowe’s play. The symbolic marriage adds depth to Edward II’s and Gaveston’s relationship, instead of them simply doting on each other’s image. There is a wonderfully awkward moment that recalls Shakespeare’s King Lear when Lancaster, Warwick and Mortimer Senior are each invited by the king to praise Gaveston – strained silences abound.

The production does not suppress the play’s similarities to Shakespeare’s Richard II, which also focuses on an incompetent king forced to hand over his crown to someone deemed more suitable. Edward II is often referred to as base, and the production enacts a moving abdication scene in a psychiatric hospital where he relinquishes his ‘crown’. Chris New excellently portrays the king’s descent from confident ruler to a ‘lunatic’ (V.i, line 114) housed in a ‘cave of care’ (V.i, line 32). Frow’s re-imagining of Edward II’s abdication strengthens the plays links to Richard II. The king signs a form then snatches and folds it into a crown he places on his head, which is then taken from him by male orderlies.

The dungeon in Marlowe’s play that is half filled with sewer water is replicated on stage. A square section of the floor is removed to reveal a small reservoir that New as King Edward spends a good hour standing in, and is even showered by water in a visually impressive humiliation. Edward II’s gruesome murder by ‘spitting is symbolically important to the homosexual theme of the entire drama, and Lightborn’s name (with its diabolical and visual associations) even seems to evoke the spit’ (Forker 306). Though the audience was spared the king’s infamous blood curdling screams as his face was submerged in water.

Frow’s production of King Edward II is an inventive and gripping drama. It engages the senses to keep the audience’s attention fixed on the stage. Just don’t forget to arrive early.


Forker, Charles R. ‘Footnote’. Edward II by Christopher Marlowe. 1591. Ed. Charles R. Forker. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.

Marlowe, Christopher. Edward II. 1591. Ed. Charles R. Forker. Manchester & New York: Manchester University Press, 1994.