To Kill a King

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Review of 'Edward II' by Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, London

The hugely enjoyable production of Edward II condenses 23 years of action into just under three hours of stage time, and it successfully conveys Marlowe's vision of the interplay between personal tragedy and historical process.

The play addresses Edward's efforts to revoke the banishment of his lover Piers Gaveston with the help of his wife, Queen Isabella. This leads to the defection of Edward's brother and close ally, the Earl of Kent. The balance of power subsequently shifts and gives momentum to the play's second movement - civil war. After Edward's defeat of the rebels, and the flight of Isabella's ally Lord Mortimer, the play's final movement begins - the hunting down and death of the king.

Marlowe's play (first performed around 1592) relentlessly questions prevailing social conventions and places Edward's and Gaveston's relationship in an entire network of power struggles within the social order. Although the historical Gaveston was a member of the gentry, Marlowe lets him rise through the ranks from the peasantry, which combined with his homosexuality enrages the nobles to the point of plotting his abduction and murder.

Even Edward's wife and son turn out to be no more trustworthy than his allies at the court. When dispatched to Normandy to defeat the French king's invasion, they immediately start to plan the assassination of Edward on their return to England. In the hands of a playwright with a taste for cruelty, the characters' individual sufferings are dramatised as intensely physical, and Edward's murder is one of the most gut-wrenching scenes of onstage violence in English drama.

The doubleness of the main characters - Gaveston, a loyal lover of the king who also exploits his position, Queen Isabella, the apparently sad wife of an indifferent husband, but also an adulteress who suggests various assassination plots - are vividly portrayed by the all male cast.

The Globe's informal atmosphere and the open air venue contribute to the appreciation of Marlowe's dramatisation of class conflict, splits in the ruling class and sexual politics.

In addition to its well established all male productions, the Globe has for the first time this year introduced a women's company, which will be performing Richard III and The Taming of the Shrew as part of its season of Regime Change.