In the words of George Michael, "It's the ones who persist for the sake of a kiss who will pay" and no one knows this better than the ill-fated Edward II, whose demise lies in his greatest asset; his loyalty. In this strong-willed production at the Oxford Playhouse, questions of loyalty and trust provide the background to an intense and slick production.
All elements of the production are presented with aplomb. Charlotte Vickers' clear vision, from the decision to cast gender-blind to the whole-hearted embrace of the gay love story which is hinted at in Marlowe's text, to the pacey flow from scene to scene, creates a production which is unerring and courageous.
The only possible exception to this is the setting, mentioned in the programme, of the Soviet Union in the 80s; if this is the setting it could only be in an abstract sense (the costumes, for instance, although cohesively well selected in terms of overall appearance, are not accurate for that era). This is however not necessarily a flaw; there is value in using something for development which is not explicit in the final production.
The set consists of a large, Brutalist, grey box which stands centre stage with transparent screens either side. It does its job perfectly; it is a background for the captivating drama which takes place around it. Paradoxically, its imposing structure does not overshadow the talented cast's execution of Vicker's direction, but compliments it. Indeed, although it is imposing, the structure can appear to offer refuge; there is a cut-out section which Calam Lynch as Edward II sits in and laments, sheltered by its walls. These moments echo visually the overbearing system into which King Edward has been born, which towers over him whilst purporting to provide him with support. The jostle between allegiance through blood and allegiance through a constructed system of power, and what happens when both are betrayed, is at the heart of Marlowe's play: it opens with King Edward's invitation to his "dearest friend" and end with the real, physical tears of his son and heir, who honours him posthumously. Harriet Bourhill's impressive design successfully plays this struggle out visually with subtlety.
Charlotte Vicker's direction is, overall, strong. There is a clear vision and cohesion in all the elements of the production. There are also moments of brilliant choreography, when the Lords enter and encircle Gaveston before he is captured, creating concentric beams of an aesthetically pleasing star with Gaveston at its inescapable middle. Another comes when Gaveston's jacket is brought on stage and his death is pronounced. There is something sharply moving about the image of his memorable leather jacket, held at human height but with no human to hang on.
Among the universally strong cast (particularly with regards to diction – hardly a word was lost), a few actors stood out. Calam Lynch as Edward II stepped up to the challenge of the iconic part with assurance and skill. Lynch had a way with Marlowe's words which was quite remarkable; his delivery of the lines was bold and captivating. Physically his embodiment of Edward shone most in the later scenes, where Edward has been crushed by his imprisonment and is weak but tender. He is so complex – a King who is haunted by a sense of duty but flawed by his genuine love and passion. Lynch captured the span of this convoluted character with nuance. Anushka Chakravarti gave a polished performance as the Earl of Lancaster; with her clear and audacious delivery, her Lancaster was upright and confident, a ringleader with little conscience but much integrity. Sam Liu also excelled as Gaveston; he did not stray into the possibility of flamboyancy which the character holds, but stood tall with fervent, gentle pride which gave his portrayal a strong foundation. Other noteworthy performances include Julia Pilkington's fragile and innocent Prince Edward and Adam Husain, whose cold, creepy Lightborne is chilling.
This is a play which has every right to the confidence which it exudes. The talent of the large cast and crew is showcased through an exploration of questions of love, passion, loyalty and trust raised by Marlowe's text, questions which resonate loud and clear through the space provided by Vickers' theatrical vision.