Joe Hill-Gibbins first brought anarchy to the Young Vic with his delightfully bonkers take on Jacobean classic The Changeling and now the National Theatre new kid on the block has attempted to wave the same chaotic wand over Christopher Marlowe, offering up a similarly raucous take on Edward II.
Yes, we may open on a traditionally pompous coronation scene where John Heffernan’s Edward is flanked by a perfectly coifed, dutifully waving wife, but with the arrival of Kyle Soller’s rock star Gaveston – and when I say arrival I really mean a feat of acrobatic, handrail scaling, Olivier theatre climbing, sarcastic heckling entering – Hill-Gibbins blows up convention leaving in its place an ironic, brutal, yet often hilarious take on the Elizabethan classic about a king struggling to balance his new found responsibility with his controversial lust for the unpredictable Gaveston.
We may neither be in Marlowe’s time or ours, but Hill-Gibbins has no qualms about throwing in the handy use of landlines in place of messengers – I’m pretty sure the line “I’ll call you back” isn’t in the original – Casio keyboards and Isabella’s penchant for a sneaky fag. The production, in fact, relies on video projections to fill the audience in on the play’s many plotting villains; the company brandishing hand-held cameras to film the action behind the set’s façade as conspirators work to overthrow Edward and rid him of his troublesome lover Gaveston once and for all.
While half the cast might be clad in clanking armour with matching sinister animal heads, underneath their iron skirts you’ll likely find rather less traditional leather shorts. Gaveston’s skinny jeans and leather bomber jacket may shake things up, but even his very modern gold medallion-complimented get up dulls in comparison to Vanessa Kirby’s icy Queen Isabella’s metallic full length dresses and opulent furs.
Lizzie Clachan’s cluttered set is equally as unexpected, with the action taking place in front of a crude, panelled castle, which, when combined with the mismatched costumes, golden royal cloak and oversized crown, gives the impression of children playing in a make believe den, with the actors more than matching this youthful energy.
Soller bristles with sexual puissance as the wiley Gaveston, successfully matching his and Heffernan’s chemistry as lovers in Act 1 with that of murderer and victim in a brief but affectingly sinister turn as the poker-wielding Lightborn in Act 2. As his competition for Edward’s affections, Kirby paints Isabella as the ultimate desperate housewife, a wounded, butter wouldn’t melt, manipulative victim; a role played with such conviction that you believe even Isabella believes it to be true.
It is Heffernan, however, in his first leading role at the National Theatre who steals the fantastically innovative show. Commanding the Olivier stage with even the quietest of soliloquies, he proves once again to be a thoughtful and engrossing performer, transforming with ease from a “frolicking” lovesick playboy to a deserted, venomous, broken man. There are many more poetic ways to put it, but let’s call a spade a spade; he’s a bloody good actor and undeniably one to watch.
With moments that feel like they could have been plucked from Blackadder, a Prince who resembles Just William, avant-garde video projections and a liberal artistic license with the text, Hill-Gibbin’s Edward II may not prove to be to everyone’s taste, but it’s exciting and has an unrelentingly inventive spirit that never tires.