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Edward II

Photography by Marnya Rothe

The Seymour Centre and Sport For Jove present, EDWARD II written by Christopher Marlowe, in the Reginald Theatre, at the Seymour Centre.

Christopher (Kit) Marlowe born in 1564, died in 1593. Queen Elizabeth I herself was said to have pronounced Christopher Marlowe’s death sentence (‘prosecute it to the full’) at court. He died from a puncture wound above the eye at the house of a widow in Deptford. The Queen’s Coroner attributed the killing to a quarrel over ‘the reckoning’, a bill for food and drink, but many have long suspected that the murder had other more sinister/powerful motives.

Marlowe was christened two months before that recorded of William Shakespeare. He received scholarship and was a graduate student of Cambridge. We are told in the published text of EDWARD II, edited, with notes and introduction by Stephen J. Lynch:

Marlowe’s literary career began while he was still a student at Cambridge, when he translated Ovid’s AMORES and probably wrote his first play DIDO, QUEEN OF CARTHAGE. After moving to London in 1587, he rose to fame with TAMBURLAINE THE GREAT and the sequel TAMBURLAINE THE GREAT, PART TWO. […] During the next five years, Marlowe wrote four additional plays, THE JEW OF MALTA, DOCTOR FAUSTUS, EDWARD II and THE MASSACRE AT PARIS – the dating/order of the plays are in controversy. He also composed the lyric poem HERO AND LEANDER and translated the first book of Lucan’s CIVIL WARS. [1]

Judith Cook, in her AT THE SIGN OF THE SWAN, tells us:

There is no doubt that Marlowe revolutionised the theatre of his time. Before Marlowe, we have the gentle romances of Greene, some fairly good comedies, some rather second-rate tragedies – though this does not include Kyd’s SPANISH TRAGEDY – and a large number of plays which are either almost forgotten or which have disappeared from trace. Marlowe pioneered the grand spectacle, the powerful show and, of course, the kind of writing for the theatre which had hitherto been unknown. [2]

Maybe, a kind of Michael Bay of the sixteenth century!

Marlowe was happy in his buskined muse,
Alas unhappy in his life and end.
Pity it is that wit so ill should dwell,
Wit lent from heaven, but vices sent from hell.

The above anonymous playwright confronted the discrepancy between Marlowe’s artistic genius and his odious moral reputation. William Shakespeare, his only serious rival, at that time, hailed the erotic poet who penned the magical verse, ‘Who ever loved, that loved not at first sight?’ Ben Jonson praised the inventor of ‘Marlowe’s mighty line’ The poet George Peele called the dead dramatist ‘the Muses’ darling, for thy verse.’ Michael Drayton, another fellow poet, proclaimed that Marlowe ” Had in him those brave translunary things,  That the first Poets had.” Stanley Wells, a Shakespeare scholar says: “Christopher Marlowe was both our first great poetic dramatist and a defiant rebel against social norms of religion, sexuality and the law.” [3]

The plays of Marlowe are episodic in nature and one of the most striking commonalities is that they are all based around one character who dominates the action. There, too, is a relish for the violence of the stories told in ‘a fury of torrential speech, the glory of language released at this molten, brazen moment into poetry that was never to be forgotten.’ Shakespeare had begun to write (Henry VI – Part 1-3) and was soon to transform the poetics and playwriting to undoubtedly greater heights, that would overwhelm, the works of Marlowe, who died so young.

The Sport For Jove Theatre Company have been a champion of the Shakespeare canon in Sydney, with Damien Ryan, its Artistic Director, Shakespeare’s recent contemporary interpreter of the first rank. Mr Ryan’s work for both Sport For Jove and Bell Shakespeare being winners of much popular admiration and critical prizes. He leads a company dedicated to the presenting of Classic texts, both old and modern (ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL, HAMLET, TWELFTH NIGHT / THE LIBERTINE, THE CRUCIBLE, and OF MICE AND MEN).

With EDWARD II, we are shown a classic playwright, an important member of the contextual growth of the heritage of the English language and the development of the craft of theatre. I have never seen a Marlowe text staged before, either in Sydney, or elsewhere (though some may have been produced at University Theatres?) – the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford recently staged THE JEW OF MALTA. So it is within a dedicated mission that Sport For Jove now give us EDWARD II and the opportunity needs to be lauded, if for no other reason than that – it is a valuable first. Directed by Terry Karabelas, a long standing member of the company, the play has been, necessarily, edited down to a two hour traffic on the stage. The play concerns the Plantagenet King, Edward II (1307-1327), regarded, historically as a ‘weak king’. Peter Earle in his essays in THE LIVES OF THE KINGS AND QUEENS OF ENGLAND, edited by Antonia Fraser, tells us:

No King of England has had such a consistently bad press as Edward II. Squeezed in between his two warrior namesakes he seemed to justify contemporary suspicion that he was a changeling. … [4]

Marlowe focuses on Edward’s (Julian Garner) erotic predilection for the male favourites of his court, especially, Piers Gaveston (Michael Whalley), in the first act, and in the second, Hugh Spencer (Ed Lempke-Hogan). It is not the homosexuality, however, that is the principal sticking point for the Royal Court, it has, we are told in the play, both historic and literary precedents, and the King has produced an heir, Prince Edward (Gabriel Rancourt) through the marriage with the Queen Isabella (Georgia Adamson), but that Edward recklessly insists in endowing his favourites with possessions and rights over and above the hierarchy of the system. Class and Order becomes the flashpoint of the civil war and rebel murder of an anointed king.

The production is handsome and disciplined (Set Design, Alicia Clements), dressed in subtle modern dress (Costume Design, Melanie Liertz), with some cross-gender casting in the disposition of the acting roles. The Sound Design by David Stalley, and the Lighting by Ross Graham both accurate in support of the intensity of the action of the story.

The two halves of the play have very different preoccupations. In the first act, we observe the court led by the Lord Mortimer (James Lugton) provoking the exile of Gaveston, only to have him returned by the favour of the King. Much emphasis in the writing of this first act is placed on the relationship between the King and his favourite. Unfortunately, there is in the staged and directed focus of this production a heavy-handed pointing to the ‘lust’ of the relationship which does not seem to bring the writer’s intention to sufficient clarity, to the core of the tragedy, which, I believe is that of an infatuated and deepening ‘love’. What Edward has for Gaveston, and Gaveston for Edward, appears to be a truly genuine love as palpable as that of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, or John Ford’s Giovanni and Anabellla (‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore) or that of Abelard and Heloise, which blinds itself to the practicalities of this aberration and all the courtly dangers in its attendant favours. Without that understanding being clear, the behaviour of the King appears to be just an animal bloody-mindedness that, thus, for the audience, undermines the empathetic struggles in the first act of the play, which in this production is dwindled to a boring shilly-shallying of now he is here, now he is gone, now he is back again, with some ‘lust’ filled activity.

The second act finds more cohesiveness and the political manoeuvres of the rebel lord, Mortimer and the Queen Isabella, become easily understood, and the anguish and outpourings of Edward, now captured and imprisoned, engender an empathy of care from the audience, such that the ultimate act of the barbaric murder on the King, and the rise of the young Prince Edward to his rightful inheritance (Edward III), produces a satisfying storytelling and balance.

Julian Garner as the King takes hold of the language of the second act with some ‘punch’ and Angela Bauer, as his supporter, the Princess of Kent (in this production) stands out with deft strength and clarity of storytelling. Mr Lugton demonstrates authority in action and text, as does Mr Fancourt. In a smaller support role the work of Simon London was also appreciated.

Marlowe’s EDWARD II is often paired with Shakespeare’s RICHARD II, the last of the Plantagenet Kings, who is also known as a ‘weak king’, as a double act for the company of performers. The poetic beauty of the latter contrasts significantly the relative primitiveness of the language of EDWARD II. This production does bring to the Sydney stage an important figure of theatre history, so far neglected by our forebears – Christopher Marlowe. is anyone ‘mad; enough to dare do TAMBURLAINE?

P.S. The character played by John Hurt in the Jim Jarmusch, 2014 film, ONLY LOVER’S LEFT ALIVE, is Christopher Marlowe, who tells us that he was not murdered at Deptford but rather ‘vampired’, and gave his later plays to William Shakespeare to present under his own name. It is another theory to add to the suspicions of who wrote those plays?! By the way, it is a film I entirely recommend – starring Tom Hiddleston and Tilda Swinton, who also played the Queen Isabella in the famous Derek Jarman film version of EDWARD II in 1991.


  1. Stephen J. Lynch (ed.), 2015, EDWARD II by Christopher Marlowe, Hackett Publishing Co.
  2. Judith Cook, 1986, AT THE SIGN OF THE SWAN, Harrap, London
  3. David Riggs, 2004, THE WORLD OF CHRISTOPHER MARLOWE, Faber and Faber
  4. Antonia Fraser (ed.), 1975, THE LIVES OF THE KINGS AND QUEENS OF ENGLAND, Book Club Associates, London