The plot concerns the defeat and eventual gruesome murder of a homosexual king by powerful barons abetted by his queen. Marlowe carries the crude chronicle play of his time a long step towards the sophistication of the mature Shakespeare history plays, most particularly to Richard II, in surprisingly plain blank verse - surprising given the richness of some of the poetry in his Doctor Faustus. We also look here in vain for the allusive, extended imagery of Shakespeare. This is a character tragedy in which the initial focus on Gaveston, Edward's favourite and lover, switches later on to Queen Isabella and her lover, Mortimer. Apart from a flagging of pace after the interval where the preparation for Edward's assassination drags on a tad, the action moves forward at a good lick in a succession of shortish scenes to culminate in the heir Edward III (pluckily played by young Reuben Stone) seizing control of the political situation something in the manner of Fortinbras at the death in Hamlet.
The narrow oblong of the refectory of Oriel College (founded in 1326, appropriately enough by Edward II), not an easy space to get to grips with, is handled with aplomb by director Antoinette Wilson who marshals her large cast without awkwardness and also expands the action sparingly but tellingly into the balcony above. The period costumes look good, especially as worn by the menacing coterie of craggy-featured barons and prelates in their first appearance in procession up the aisle.
The production calls for more than 20 speaking parts, and in the title role Barry Page is just terrific. He’s quite slight in build but regal, and possesses rhythmic grasp of the verse. Simultaneously strong but weak, euphoric yet cast-down, he rings the changes of mood and predicament perfectly. Never playing for pity, nevertheless he evokes it by the end. He's backed up by strong performances everywhere, particularly from Paul Pietersee's wide-eyed Gaveston, Chris Moore's grim Warwick and Keith Franklin, creepily making the most of the sinister murderer.
Here’s a chance in Oxford to see this rarity done with imagination and conviction. Warmly recommended.