Tom Stuart and Beru Tessema in ‘Edward II’ at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Photo: Marc Brenner)
I would not usually be compelled to write a review, or even a response to a piece of theatre. In fact, let me state that I find writing reviews extremely difficult. How could I sum up a two-hour, one-of-a-kind emotional journey in a mere couple hundred words? Nevertheless, I am doing it now because for the past month these two Globe productions have kept me thinking about how theatre can successfully imprint onto our emotions.
Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’ follows the unfortunate Medieval King who met his fate in the most gruesome and undignified way, murdered by members of his own court who were aided by his wife, Queen Isabella. Within the play, the real source of conflict, however, is Edward II’s overt homosexuality. This is placed at the forefront of the Globe’s production. The audience is meant to understand Edward’s assassination by the hot poker as a violently homophobic act committed by the nobles who abhorred the King’s doting on his favourite, Piers Gaveston, whom Edward II made Earl of Cornwall.
Complementing Marlowe’s play is a contemporary response from actor and writer Tom Stuart, who plays the role of Edward II in Marlowe’s piece. He also plays the main character in ‘After Edward’ which is a deeply personal response to the source material. The main character is an actor who has recently played Edward (i.e. Stuart himself). Preparing for the role triggered something within him, meaning that he is locked into the theatre as a representation of his psyche, along with notable LGBTQ+ figures such as Gertrude Stein, Quentin Crisp, and Harvey Milk. The Actor must work through his traumas stemming from childhood bullying and years spent being ashamed of his own sexuality. Stuart affronts his own unresolved demons, drawing on autobiographical events like living under Section 28, which have all fed into his portrayal. But once he vocalises his hurt and acknowledges their root, the chandeliers ascend and he is able to address the audience directly, leaving everyone with an uplifting message of liberation (quite literally ‘Liberation’ by the Pet Shop Boys). At one point during the play, a character scoffs “Drama as therapy, there’s nothing worse”, and it does, indeed, feel like a form of collective therapy. This hopeful message of self-acceptance is in direct opposition with the intense pain of Edward II in his final moments. This is not just a reflection of the progress made in terms of LGBTQ+ rights, but also showcases the power of drama to construct a bubble where everyone can take a moment of introspection. As Stuart does, we can confront ourselves in the theatre and step out into the real world with an altered mindset, hopefully having grown as people.
Tom Stuart and Richard Cant in ‘After Edward’ at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, (Photo: Marc Brenner)
The productions are brilliant stand-alones, but when you see them as a pair there is a true level of connection with the core messages and themes that would not be possible without Stuart’s own contemporary viewpoint. The struggles of Edward II suddenly feel as if they were written now. Good theatre makes antiquated material connect to today’s audience without sacrificing the original intentions of the writer. In other words, there is a sense of continuity between the then and now, but it is neither a twenty-first-century adaptation, nor a slavishly authentic copy – and yet it feels relevant. The cast remains the same for both plays, with some truly amazing performances in both productions. Character combinations such as the Archbishop of Canterbury / Leatherman played by Richard Bremmer, or Richard Cant as Earl of Lancaster / Quentin Crisp showcase the full range of each actor oscillating between the villainous and the thought-provoking and even the comic. Still, the real hero of both productions is Tom Stuart who becomes a point of connection between the world of Edward II and ours. ‘After Edward’ is at its heart about what drew him to the character of Edward II, allowing us access to the psychological labour that actors put into their characterisation. Stuart’s intelligent analysis enriches Marlowe’s Edward so much that by the assassination scene the entire audience mourns the tragic King, breaths held and heart full of sorrow for what he endured. The modern perspective does not tarnish in the slightest the source material, in fact, it makes it better by looking beyond the layers of historicism and pomp, focusing on the humanity of the characters.
If my haphazard review has inspired at least one person to go and watch either one of the productions, then I have happily done my part. If you do go, come find me and let’s chat about what you thought of it!
Christopher Marlowe’s ‘Edward II’ is on at the Globe until 20 April.
Tom Stuart’s ‘After Edward’ has unfortunately finished its limited run, but you can buy the book.