Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II was written in the 16th century, but Drame Fatale’s student production at the Oxford Playhouse could not be more relevant today. It shows that love can blind, that absolute power is dangerous, and the battle for political influence merciless. When King Edward II becomes King, the Barons and Queen see his affair with Piers Gaveston as a threat to their influence. From then on, intrigue ensues to the point where Marlowe’s audience are left wondering whether anyone is deserving of their sympathy.
One thing becomes clear early on: director Charlotte Vickers’ production certainly does deserve plenty of sympathy. From actors’ performances to the quality and thought that went into the costumes, set and sound, there is little that doesn’t stand out. The play thrives off Calam Lynch’s portrayal of Edward II’s emotional and whimsical nature; his physicality and poise are outstanding. The same can be said of the other main characters: Rosa Garland is apt in depicting Isabella’s humiliation and thirst for revenge, while Joe Stephenson’s Mortimer is suitably rebellious, and Sam Luis’ passionate performance as Piers Gaveston is worthy of much praise. What stands out is the chemistry in this cast of twenty actors. Even when all were onstage, no one seemed out of place. However, there will always be something to be improved. Several cast members tended too often to face away from the audience, and could work on projecting louder: it was sometimes difficult to hear them clearly.
What is special about this play is how much thought had clearly gone into set, sound and costumes. These are refreshingly modern rather than medieval, which very much helps to communicate the timeless nature of the play. A set by Harriet Bourhill consists of one large concrete breezeblock, which also functions as throne. Behind it is a canvas whose changing colour helps to highlight the tone of each scene. Just like the set, costumes (by Marcus Knight-Adams) are kept modern and simple, with little touches to accentuate character traits: furs to symbolize status and power, for example. Both set and costumes were intended to be reminiscent of the Cold War, although this would have escaped me had I not had access to the show’s well-designed programme. What particularly stood out for me is the sound: whether through icy wind, canon shots or by making actor’s voices echo, designer Jonny Danciger manages always to set the tone for the scene.
I was struck most by the message Vickers sends. In a time where sexual politics have become more crucial to debate than ever, I cannot praise enough her decision to conduct gender-blind casting and to embrace wholeheartedly the homoeroticism of Marlowe’s text. If you weren’t convinced before, this alone should be reason enough to buy your ticket now.