Drame Fatale’s interpretation of Christopher Marlowe’s sixteenth century play Edward II transports the rule of its eponymous king into the Cold War world of 1980s Russia, a movement which serves to highlight how the politics of warfare and sexuality still have the potential to resonate with modern audiences. Or at least, this is what the Oxford Playhouse programme tells me. Without this guide, I wouldn’t have picked up on this decision; other than the nod to a Brutalist aesthetic in set and costume and a slightly out of place fight scene played out through physical theatre, very little was made of this backdrop.
At first impression the staging of this production appears immediately impressive. Harriet Bourhill’s set, which consists of an enormous concrete structure dominating the stage is incredibly striking and works to establish the mood of the play in the pre-set in which Edward, tortured and brooding, struts about onstage. After this initial visual impact, however, this structure serves for nothing but to belabour the performance; it is overbearing and completely static, restricting the action entirely to the front half of the stage and only allowing entrances and exits to take place through the front wings. As a result, the staging and movements of the actors appears tired, as they only move on one level and are restricted to a very small area. This decision seems a shame given the potential of the Playhouse and the amount of space that was available for director Charlotte Vickers to work with and realise her vision– whilst arguably she has created an appropriate atmosphere of claustrophobia and oppression, she has also limited her actors’ potential by minimising their movement.
“the staging and movements of the actors appears tired, as they only move on one level”
Due to the limited space, the large cast, particularly the numerous earls and nobleman, crowd the stage, meaning that their voices are lost at times. Generally, however, the performances are strong and the decision of gender blind casting has worked in their favour – Georgie Murphy is an emotional and striking Edmund, and Julia Pilkington as Prince Edward perfectly captures the balance between his tremulous youth and the enormous power which he is afforded at the play’s close. The standout performances, however, come from Calam Lynch as Edward II, and Rosa Garland as Isabella. It is clear that both have been directed well, and they bring a believable chemistry to their respective illicit relationships with Gaveston and Mortimer. The interactions between Edward and Gaveston (Sam Liu) are particularly believable in the passion that is portrayed, and shows Vickers’ wholehearted embrace of the sexual politics of Marlowe’s original text.
It is unfortunate that the impressive performances of a talented cast at times fall flat due to inhibiting staging. Whilst the action picks up in the second half as the focus moves onto the fate of Edward and the stage is cleared for Lynch, I can’t help wondering if the Playhouse was the right venue for this performance. Both lighting and sound are impressive – it is the staging which lets it down, creating an almost unfailingly static performance which left me wanting more.