by Rachel Beaumont

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Fear the bull of silliness: Edward II at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Edward II
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe
Gallery C26, £10
14 February 2019
Globe page

I think it’s right to treat Marlowe to a certain degree of scepticism; but I stand by Edward II. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s not a challenge, and it needs considerably greater directorial pizazz than Nick Bagnall brings to it to lift it above the appearance of inane silliness that unfortunately prevails in this Sam Wanamaker production.

There is some beautiful text in Edward II and there is also some very silly text. A director needs to grab the bull by the horns and conceive of some way to make these lines work – such as the camp bravado of the Sam Wanamaker production of Webster’s The White Devil a few years back.

Bagnall quails, however. Those stupid lines aren’t given a framework in which they are allowable, aren’t made decisive and essential; instead, they and the actors speaking them are hung out to dry. The inevitable consequence is titters from the audience, not good titters but embarrassed titters, the only response to text that without more support can only seem lame.

After the fact, it feels, the actors have tried to improvise together a framework, waiting for the laughs, even using silly accents to position the lines as more intentionally comic. It is too little much too late, and gives the unpleasant feeling that Bagnall isn’t really sure why they’re producing this play in the first place.

That indecision infects the whole. The magnificent Annette Badland is the only actor to survive with integrity intact; like Simon Russell Beale in the Almeida’s Richard II it’s like she’s in a different play, speaking her variety of roles with an intensity and deliberateness perfectly suited to text and venue. Otherwise, despite promising glimmers from Tom Stuart as Edward, Beru Tessema as Gaveston and Katie Weston as Isabella, it’s directionless heehawing across the board.

There are pockets of interesting work from other members of the production team, but without a central vision these can only feel like pointless pootling. Designer Jessica Worrall has turned the floor of the stage into a magnificent reproduction of a Norman cathedral floor. It is straightforwardly beautiful, and a welcome distraction. Her costume designs, on the other hand, are generic player medieval ware, conveying nothing.

Composer Bill Barclay’s score is overly intrusive and out of kilter with anything on stage; and, unfortunately, the handful of moments where the cast are called upon to sing are irredeemably dreadful. But I am absolutely overflowing with admiration for the musicians, and for the incredible imagination behind the dramatic sound effects for which Barclay presumably deserves credit. The band of four virtuosically jump between instruments, one player equally at home on a shawm, bagpipes, a ney or a zither; but even more delightful is the percussion setup, suspended drums and tubing used to create sounds that until now I thought could only be produced electronically.

So it was not a wasted evening – but add in an interpretation of the Marlowe that respected the material and brought in some ideas of its own and I would have been happier. Is that too much to ask?

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