“Welcome to the madhouse.” Thus opened Mermaids’ production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, re-written and directed by Matthew Gray. This line was an apt summation of what was to follow on stage, delivered in an eerily gleeful tone by Queen Isabella (Issy Sheridan) with open arms. A circus like revelry of sexual and violent indulgence defined this madhouse, a world Gray powerfully created on stage. The queering of this Early Modern play was both an important and apt reading of Marlowe’s text. Homoeroticism has widely been seen in–between the lines of Edward II and frequently commented upon; however, Gray reclaimed this narrative and made a gay relationship the centre point of his adaption.
After the death of the King of England, Edward II (Ben Clark) comes to the throne and immediately welcomes back his “favourite” Piers Gaveston (Joe Torkington) to the court, showering him in titles much to the dislike of his courtiers, led by Mortimer, Earl of March (Toby Poole) and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster (Donovan Kelly). This political dynamic frames the unravelling of sanity, sexuality and social order which the play tracks.
It was the queering of the play which heralded its merits. The opening lovers’ interaction between Edward II and Gaveston divulged into an amusing lip-sync of Sixteen going on Seventeen with umbrella-wielding dancers in tow. This witty humour ran throughout the play, despite its dark and gruesome content, which was seen again in the later musical inclusion of Kylie Minogue Can’t Get You Out of My Head. These charming moments made the play for me. In these instances, you could really see Gray’s passion and personality come through. However, these moments were not always injected with humour. One of the stand-out moments of the play, the speech by the Queen (Sebastian Taylor) about the years and years of injustice and violence enacted against LGBT+ people, was both striking and horrifying. The staging of this monologue was particularly well-executed with the drag club lit parallel to the political debates of Edward II’s enemies, who attack his sexuality throughout the play.
However, despite this inspired personality and originality the production at times seemed torturous. This is no immediate fault of Gray, or his cast, but is an inescapable take-away from a Marlowe play. The violence and death, especially in the second half, became relentless. The advertisement of the play as comparable to The Favourite, the 2018 blockbuster focusing on the politics and sexuality of Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman), was therefore an apt marketing tool. The play was as equally grotesque, even though this was both the intention and the pull. However, at points these violent scenes in the play became too much. Depictions of rape and electro-shock therapy were almost unbearable to watch and definitely needed a trigger warning for those viewers who would find these topics particularly upsetting. The lack therefore of any such trigger warning was some-what concerning. By the final scenes the play became unnecessarily long, especially after processing these challenging scenes throughout.
However, the overwhelming take-away from Gray’s Edward II was a creative flare which fostered a play both special and important. The final scene with the heir Edward III (Charles Vivian) claiming the throne after the death of his father Edward II, Mortimer, and much of the remaining cast was haunting. He stood in the wake of a play which challenged gender, sexuality, politics and everything in between. This was an achievement for a student play tackling such complex issues in modern society, despite being abstracted through the lens of the 14th century.