by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
It was probably only a matter of time before Diversionary Theatre, San Diego’s quarter-century old company specializing in Queer-themed plays, produced what is possibly the first “Gay play” in the modern sense of the term, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II. Marlowe, born in Canterbury, England in 1564 — just two months before William Shakespeare’s birth in Stratford-on-Avon — died at age 29 in Deptford, ostensibly in a tavern brawl with four drinking buddies, one of whom was tried and acquitted on the ground of self-defense.
The story was almost certainly a cover-up. At the time of his death Marlowe was under indictment for homosexuality and atheism, both of which were capital crimes in Elizabethan England, and one of his boyfriends was Thomas Walsingham, son of the first cousin of Sir Francis Walsingham, who headed the intelligence service that was essentially Queen Elizabeth’s CIA. Thomas Kyd, a mediocre playwright whose works drew bigger audiences than either Marlowe’s or Shakespeare’s (so what else is new?), had himself been arrested for atheism and, being interrogated under torture, fingered Marlowe. Hugh Ross Williamson, in his 1972 historical novel Kind Kit, suggested that Sir Francis Walsingham had four of his agents kill Marlowe and fake it to look like a brawl in order to keep the case from coming to trial and embarrassing him and his Queen.
All of which is offered here merely to point out that in writing Edward II — the story of a more or less openly Gay 14th Century King of England who neglected his wife, Isabella (daughter of King Philip IV of France), for his boyfriend Piers Gaveston, then took up with another young man, Hugh Despenser the Younger (called simply “Young Spenser” in the play), antagonizing many of the noblemen as well as the Church and ultimately sparking a brutal civil war, his murder and his son’s accession to the throne — Marlowe was writing what he knew. Reflecting his intellectual training — he was a graduate of Cambridge University — Marlowe’s plays, like Shaw’s and Brecht’s, tended to be more social and political lessons rather than character studies, and his writing usually lacked the humanity and depth of Shakespeare’s. Not Edward II, though; in what was either the last or next-to-last (scholars differ) of his seven surviving plays, Marlowe created richly drawn, complex characters in a poetic language whose beauty and scope rivals Shakespeare’s.
Edward II begins in 1307, when the title character becomes king on the death of his father, Edward I, during a war against Scotland. (Edward II took over the war and led the English army to a major defeat at Bannockburn in 1314; the war isn’t depicted in Marlowe’s play but is dramatized from a pro-Scottish point of view in Mel Gibson’s film Braveheart.) He immediately sends for his partner Gaveston, whom Edward I had banished to his native Gascony (a French province the English were essentially renting from them), scandalizing the nobles with their open affair and the wild parties they threw at court.
The play is a rapid-fire series of scenes alternating between Edward and the nobles — particularly Mortimer, their leader (Marlowe wrote two characters named Mortimer, the younger being the older’s nephew, but Diversionary’s director Richard Baird, also credited with adapting the play, fused them into one) — as they get him to exile Gaveston again, Gaveston sneaks away, the nobles catch him and one of them murders him, Edward starts a civil war which he wins and orders all his enemies executed, but Mortimer escapes. Later he and Edward’s rejected Queen Isabella flee to France and raise an army to take over; the plot succeeds, and Edward is forced to abdicate in favor of his son Edward III, a teenager Mortimer and Isabella think they can easily control.
Edward is ultimately murdered — Marlowe’s script doesn’t say exactly how, but Baird’s staging seizes on hints in the script and depicts Edward being killed with a red-hot poker thrust up his anus (a legend that took hold because medieval moralists thought that was a fitting punishment for a Gay king) — but the new king, Edward III, denounces his mother and Mortimer for the murders of his father and his uncle Edmund. Though the script doesn’t specify what happens next, Marlowe’s original audience would have known it: Edward III became one of England’s greatest kings, reigned for 50 years and with his son, Edward the Black Prince, came close to conquering France.
One thing that may surprise modern viewers about Edward II is that it makes clear just how little power medieval monarchs actually had. The day of royals who were absolute dictators — like “Sun King” Louis XIV of France, who proclaimed, “L’etat c’est moi!” (“I am the state!”) — was at least three centuries in the future when Edward reigned. Medieval kings were hamstrung by their dependence on the feudal nobility — whom they relied on for both taxes and military forces — and on the church, which had the power to condemn an entire country as sinners and thereby encourage attacks from outside by telling the attackers they were doing God’s work. The conflicts between king and nobles, and between king and church — “Why must a king be subject to a priest?” Edward rages in one of the most famous lines in the play (and one of striking relevance today!) — are vividly staged in Marlowe’s script, Baird’s adaptation and Diversionary’s production.
Diversionary’s Edward II vividly brings Marlowe’s play to life, and the real heroes are Richard Baird and Ross Hellwig, who stars as the king (and is the only Actors’ Equity member in the cast). Baird’s fast-moving adaptation keeps the story going, pushes the actors to spit the lines out so fast they sound like their normal mode of speech, and sometimes brings on one set of characters while another is still on stage to avoid the pauses between scenes that make many productions of Elizabethan drama dull. Though there are times early on in which Hellwig acts so effeminate you wonder whether he’s playing England’s king or queen, he soon settles into an authoritative reading of the role that makes the character believable and turns the play into a tour de force for him.
Not that this is a one-star drama; the program lists 29 characters and they are played by 15 actors, the largest cast Diversionary has ever assembled for anything. The play opens with a vivid entrance by Dangerfield Moore as Gaveston, oozing dangerous sexuality (he’s the only male who’s allowed to show a basket, a neat touch by costume designer Howard Schmitt) and leaving us no doubt why Edward is in such thrall to this man that he’s willing to give up virtually everything for him. The conspirators are led by John Polak as Roger Mortimer, who may or may not have been Queen Isabella’s adulterous lover (in Marlowe’s script, as adapted by Baird, he wants to be but she rejects him), and they include Warwick (Jeff Anthony Miller, who’s also credited with “fight choreography”), Leicester and Pembroke (both played by Reed Willard). Mortimer, as played by Polak, is a properly oily S.O.B. and the others deliver finely honed performances, reflecting the subtle differences between them in terms of how far they’re willing to go against a legitimate king.
Alexandra Grossi as Isabella appears a bit too edgy in her early speeches — methinks her laments at having lost the king’s love to a man (“For now my lord the king regards me not/But dotes upon the love of Gaveston”) should be played more in sorrow than in anger — but perhaps she and Baird chose this way to make it more credible when she re-emerges as a driven revenge figure in the second half. Towards the end, some of the doublings in the cast do start to strain credibility. Jim “Doc” Coates gets to play three older men — the Archbishop of Canterbury, the father of Spenser (Edward’s last male lover) and Lightborn, the hired assassin brought in to kill Edward — and he’s good in all his roles but it’s a little hard to take as this distinctive actor first opposes Edward, then is on his side and finally does him in. And Miller’s doubled role as Matrevis, one of Mortimer’s executioners, seems just a little too much like Boris Karloff’s Mord in Tower of London (Universal’s 1939 film of the Richard III story) for comfort.
Still, Diversionary’s Edward II is for the most part impeccably acted and grippingly staged. The Elizabethan theatre wasn’t big on scenery — Diversionary’s scenic designer, Matt Scott, wisely avoided elaborate sets and staged the action in front of large, dowdy-looking hanging curtains whose period looked more or less right — but its actors wore elaborate costumes and there were surprisingly convincing special effects. Baird and “fight choreographer” Miller don’t go as far as they would have in Marlowe’s time, in which the actors frequently wore bladders filled with pig’s blood so they would bleed on cue when stabbed, but the murders are not only utterly credible but also surprisingly gory for live theatre.
Howard Schmitt’s costume designs create a quite convincing picture of the Middle Ages, and — praise be — the costumes themselves look worn enough to be believable as real clothing worn by people in everyday life. (One slip-up is Edward’s crown, a plastic souvenir-shop knickknack that’s totally illusion-shattering.) As prop designer, David Medina mainly seemed to have to come up with credible weapons — the swords are metal and make a satisfying clank when the actors fence with each other — and the wash basin in which Edward and Gaveston dunk the head of one of those unwelcome priests also looks right. Kevin Anthenill provided original music as well as doing the sound design, and for once it was nice to hear an Elizabethan drama scored with instruments other than trumpets and drums.
It’s nice to see Diversionary Theatre celebrating its 25th anniversary with a pioneering work of Queer theatre like Edward II. Their production is certainly superior to Derek Jarman’s self-indulgent film from 1991 — of which Diversionary is doing a special screening Tuesday, September 20, 7:30 p.m. — done largely in modern dress, which inexplicably turned Edward II into a Queer Nation activist leading a ragtag flock against a line of riot police. (imdb.com lists two other films of Edward II, both made for TV, and the 1970 BBC version — with a young Ian McKellen as Edward — would probably be worth seeing.) For Richard Baird’s direction, vivid and well-acted performances in the leads, and an overall approach that takes Marlowe’s drama out of the academy and turns it into visceral, exciting entertainment, Diversionary’s Edward II is not to be missed.
Edward II is playing through Sunday, October 2 at Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Boulevard in University Heights. Performances are 7:30 Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. For tickets and other information, call (619) 220-0097 or visit www.diversionary.org