Pros: The wacky combination of medieval architecture and eighties costumes and music is quite the experience.
Cons: The aesthetics, however enjoyable, do distract from the themes of the play.
I’m a bit of a sucker for a nice church, so, by choosing the very old and formidable-looking St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield as their venue, Scena Mundi already had me on board with their Edward II as soon as I walked in. Fortunately, the great location isn’t the only aspect of this production that commands attention.
Combined with its Shakespearean equivalent Richard II in Scena Mundi’s ‘Sad Stories of the Death of Kings’ season, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II is the lesser known play, but no less compelling than its counterpart. The story focuses on the relationship between King Edward and his ‘minion’ (i.e. lover) Gaveston. While Edward absolutely adores Gaveston, the English noblemen are less impressed by him. Particularly since Edward is so taken in by his lover that he neglects his duties as a king. This leads the nobles, later joined by Edward’s neglected wife Isabella, to rebel against the king in order to get rid of Gaveston and gain control of England.
While not all the performances are of the same quality, the leading men and ladies more than pull their weight. Anna Buckland’s Edmund and Martin Prest’s Mortimer are both strong and compelling. Edward Fisher puts in a moving performance as the main man. Although his self-pity parties occasionally veer towards the melodramatic, you’d be hard-pressed not to feel sorry for him. The most eye-catching performance of the night however, is Pip Brignall’s Gaveston and not just because he wears a bright purple suit. Gaveston is one of those characters that you have to love and loathe in equal measure and Brignall has captured that perfect balance. He’s ruthless and charming, manipulative and smitten all at the same time. The dynamic between Brignall and Fisher is just right as well. On their own they constantly reveal themselves to be pretty horrible people, but when you see them together you’re happy for them all the same.
Director Cecilia Dorland and designer Penny Rischmiller have to be commended as well, for the surprising but enjoyable glam-rock aesthetic they’ve chosen for the show. I didn’t have any design-related expectations in particular when I came in, but I can tell you that rave boots with flaming skulls, red lace leggings and suit jackets with chain mail sleeves were not on my mind. The theme isn’t confined to the costumes. In several scenes the church was echoing with eighties rock, most notably during a battle set to the intro of Alice Cooper’s Poison. I do believe that the wackiness of the design distracted slightly from the poignancy of the play. Especially fresh after a general election it would be interesting to project Marlowe’s views on power and responsibility to the 21st century. On the other hand, with modern dress productions of Elizabethan plays being a bit of a staple these days, this unexpected choice makes for a welcome change.
Finally, I’m not even going to try to describe what a great location the shadowy, echoing interior of Great St Bart’s is for a show like this; you’ll just have to go find out for yourself! But don’t forget to ask for a blanket at the box office. As the evening goes on it does get rather chilly, and even if it doesn’t, a blanket will come in handy to cushion the hard seats.