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Review: Edward II, National Theatre, London

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Works by Christopher Marlowe are not performed that often in London theatres. Sadly this chaotic production of Edward II is unlikely to cause audiences to clamour for more.

Edward II is the story of the short, troublesome reign of this English monarch. King Edward is married to Isabella of France but his true affections are for Gaveston, his roguish, charismatic male lover.

However the Royal Court despises Gaveston, hateful of his influence over the King as well as his blatant homosexuality, so they conspire to bring Gaveston down. But when they find the King unwilling to be without his lover, the Earls and Dukes must decide whether to bring down the King as well.

With such great source material, this production should have been excellent. Instead it was a bit of a car crash. The rumoured lack of rehearsal time shows in almost every aspect of this production, which is frustrating as there is potential here. Perhaps therefore the show might improve as the run continues.

We are so used to the National operating at such a high standard that to see one of its productions with so many flaws is a surprise to the point of being a shock. The production admirably looks to bring out the intrigue and conspiracy of the Royal Court as the barons and nobles conspire to unseat Gaveston and, eventually, the King but the method chosen to do this is flawed.

The set design (Lizzie Clachan) has the throne chamber, where the King luxuriates in his authority, at the front of the stage. However behind his throne is a locked, sealed room into which the audience can't see. This is where the Earls and Dukes lay their plans.

So how does the audience get to see all the crucial activity taking place in this unseen area? Through the use of hand-held cameras, the results of which are projected onto large cinema screens at the front of the stage.

These shaky cam images, which worked wonders for The Blair Witch Project, might be interesting in a theatrical environment if used minimally, as they were in Sam Mendes wonderful production of Richard III at The Old Vic. But here their use is constant. Something is very wrong with a production if it is so heavily reliant on cinema screens to make up for a claustrophobic intrigue that it's unable to get across to the audience in another way.

The characterisation of some of the principal players is also not fully developed. John Heffernan's portrayal of Edward II as a King in name only, with little ability to be the man his title demands of him, is delicate and poignant in the second half of the play. Sadly for most of the first half his character is lost in the drama between Gaveston and his un-loyal Court.

Similarly, the portrayal of Isabella of France (Vanessa Kirby) is stronger in the second act. In the first act, the depiction oscillates between that of an interesting portrayal of a woman in a man's world and some form of comedic drunk barmaid caricature, constantly resorting to the wine every time her husband's infidelity is flung in her face; a bit like Angie from Eastenders.

After the interval, the depiction of Isabella improves immeasurably as Kirby investigates more that fascinating grey area between the machinations of a scheming opportunist and the hurt of a rejected wife.

So what works in this production? Well, some interesting ideas are there. The idea to merge traditional and contemporary styles is a good one. For example, having the modern rave-loving Gaveston in skinny jeans and a leather jacket plays well against the staid armoury and robes of the Royal Court, and gets the desired message of prejudice and discrimination across well.

Kyle Sonner's performance as Gaveston is worthy of praise. His portrayal as the fun-loving but scheming lover of the King is excellent, full of charisma, presence and great delivery. Indeed it is the saving grace of the first half of the play. Also worthy of mention is Ben Addis as Baldock who gives a great turn as the King's new adviser in a performance that has both wit and drama.

The improvements in the second half show the potential in the production. The direction is tighter and the set design is less distracting, with the box removed and the stage shrouded in the suffocating darkness needed for such a dramatic climax. It's just such a shame that the potential isn't fully realised and that the gimmicks are allowed to dominate.

National Theatre, London

To October 26, 2013