You might be forgiven for thinking that gay plays are a modern-day invention. As our queer forebears began fighting for LGBT rights in the ‘60s, one of the by-products of this newly found radicalism and pride was that queer art became more prolific. We’ve had Harvey Fierstein’s ‘Torch Song Trilogy,’ Mark Ravenhill’s ‘Shopping and Fucking,’ and Alexi Kaye Campbell’s ‘The Pride,’ which opened last month to a fanfare of rave reviews in London.
But one English dramatist from the sixteenth century got there first – namely Christopher Marlowe (1564-1593) who penned a play whose queer credentials were not only way ahead of their time, but even now have the ability to shock. I’m talking about ‘Edward II,’ which has just opened at the National Theatre in a staging that’s so thrilling on every level that by the close I was left gasping for breath.
The play depicts the reign of Edward II (1307-1327) in a series of vibrant scenes, beginning with his coronation, and ending with his grisly death – via a red hot poker thrust up his ass. Although married, his heart belonged to Piers Gaveston who returns from exile in France, only to be exiled (and returned) within a very short space of time.
The Barons and the Church disapprove of the King’s relationship with him so hatch a plan to be rid of him, but later realise that they can control his fate only if he is within this shores. They eventually depose the King, and murder Gaveston.
Director Joe Hill-Gibbins has given the play a radical makeover which has ruffled plenty of feathers in the UK national press. For me it has terrific pace, poetry and plenty of ideas to rivet attention. Part modern-dress, part set in the fourteenth century, the two styles collide with such force that theatrical fireworks ensue.
The scenes where the Barons and Bishops plot against the King take place in a closed area behind the front of the stage which we can only see via video on two large screens either side of the stage. This gives a voyeuristic and claustrophobic view of proceedings as the Barons chain-smoke whilst planning the King’s demise. Much of the first half is also very funny, but things turn serious and nasty after the interval when everything becomes more focussed.
The acting is top notch as well. John Heffernan is superb in the title role – the way in which he delivers some of the finest lines ever penned in the English language is mesmerising, and he is ably supported by Kyle Soller as a cocky, American-accented Gaveston who positively oozes sexual danger from his first, scene-stealing entrance (which would be far too unfair of me to reveal). Their long, lingering kiss in front of the assembled court was electrifying.
This bold, daring, staging of one of the first ever ‘gay plays’ is quite simply a must-see.
Photos: Johan Persson