“I will have Gaveston, and you shall know what danger ’tis to stand against your king”
Now this is what I want my National Theatre to be like – creative, bold, fresh, fearless. There’s no pretending that Joe Hill-Gibbins’ production of Marlowe’s Edward II is flawless perfection, its modern ambition sprawls over the Olivier’s vast stage and up onto the walls as screens either side relay live video footage, but the energy at hand from both cast and creatives is wonderfully galvanising and points defiantly towards the possibilities of the future when Nicholas Hytner finally stands down in a couple of years. Traditionalists may balk, especially in some of the more challenging sections of the first half but for this institution to thrive, it has to be allowed to experiment and expand its remit and that ought to be supported by all.
Under the cruel yoke of his father, Edward suffered his lover Gaveston to be exiled but on ascending to the throne to become Edward II, he restores him to England and lavishes him with jewels and titles. But their overt hedonism riles up the powerful barons of the realm as they take up the cause of his neglected queen Isabella in an audacious power-grab, setting up the kind of conflict that leaves no-one unscathed. John Heffernan ascends to his first major London lead role with all of the subtlety and aching depth that has long made him a favourite around these parts. His Edward is a capricious fidget, pathetically desperate to please Kyle Soller’s cockily assured Gaveston and their headlong lustful passion is one that you believe he would fight tooth and nail for, yet he also possesses an innate grace under pressure – his abdication speech is profoundly moving, the desperation of his exile near-impossible to watch.
Hill-Gibbins utilises much of the anarchic spirit that infused his recent revival of The Changeling at the Young Vic – costumes are a mixture of periods, there are in-jokes about the Shed, entrances are as likely to come from the back of the stalls as they are from the wings – and though it is a heady mix indeed, the disparate elements are corralled beautifully by the time the second half starts. The live video work that is initially so dizzying as it provides the only visual into an antechamber that hidden from our view, settles into something simpler, whether tracking the deposed King-in-exile as his rivals celebrate upstage or bringing a new perspective to the genuinely upsetting late execution of some favourites. But he also allows his actors room to speak for themselves – Vanessa Kirby’s moody Isabella fiercely puffs away whilst calculating her best self-interested move yet unable to shake the hurt of rejection and Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s intensity burns his Mortimer from the inside out as ambition seizes him blindly.
There’s also some neat innovations – gender-swapping Kent allows the excellent Kirsty Bushell to take the part of the King’s sibling and she anchors much of the cool-headed emotion of the play, such as it exists, establishing a particularly strong rapport with Bettrys Jones’ young Prince Edward. And having some actors double up adds a delicious spin to later scenes – Alex Beckett and Matthew Pidgeon get to run the whole gamut and the canniest piece of doubling allows for an unexpected twist to the climactic assassination, almost recalling Romeo and Juliet with its intertwined bodies. The production’s exuberance may prove too much for some in the first half but I would urge any doubters to stick around after the interval as what may have felt disjointed and overbusy matures into something much more coherent and ultimately very powerful. Edward II is not like much else that has been seen at the National and one hopes that such rough-edged creative diversity is encouraged and allowed to flourish, even with the chance of (partial) failure or otherwise, rather than be stifled by a lack of adventure from traditional critics and customers.