Edward II (Treehouse Shakespeare Ensemble) @ The Blackfriars Playhouse

A burgundy strip of carpet marked a sheer diagonal between the upstage right door and the downstage left steps of the Blackfriars stage. Bisecting the stage, this diagonal carpet offered a perspectival shift in relation to the straight-on view of this Edward II, a shift not dissimilar in angle to that offered by Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533). That painting’s violent, off-kilter intrusion into conventional organizations of space insists that the viewer reorient themselves, in order that they see a shocking reality juxtaposed with the decorous and formal. Michael Manocchio’s diagonal take on Marlowe’s play deployed its striking spatial reformations to queer history and narrative, to invite its audience to reorient themselves, to see differently.

The Ambasasadors.
Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors (1533). The National Gallery, London.

The production’s flouting of history was established most firmly in the combination of Rachel Louis’s period-skipping costume design and in the traditional Blackfriars musical pre-show, co-ordinated with an ear for some absolute bangers by Jordan Willis. As Margaret Levin belted out Madonna’s ‘Express Yourself’ and then Rosemary Richards toyed with both the curtain and the audience by turning ‘Toxic’ into a playful torch song (with the main riff turned into a hilarious call-and-response oboe and flute by Genevieve K. Henderson and Madison Rudolph), Cole Metz’s Edward dressed himself: dangling earrings, sparkling crown and all, while also dealing with letters. The anachronistic pre-show is a staple of the Blackfriars experience; by juxtaposing it with a sequence of sartorial preparation, though, it insisted on a deeper unsettling of time and positionality, underpinning the very crown Edward wore. By the time the company joined together to deliver a cover of ‘Unholy’ led by George Durfee and Kelsey Harrison set to a series of belts being snapped in unison, Edward’s own expression was complete, but also contained by and juxtaposed with the procession of nobles dressed in formal eveningwear who progressed across the stage, with whom both Edward and his queer chorus fell in line to leave. The somber stifling of the joyful potential of the opening gig, the ironing out of the messiness of the musical gathering through the sharp lines traced by the nobles, the relentless march of a straight history through the anachronisms of the production’s opening, all beautifully set up the ensuing tensions.

The forces arraigned against Edward were represented by pursed lips, monochromatic bold colors, rigid movement, and clipped speech. Beth Somerville’s Mortimer stood with hands folded in front of her, immovable, conserving all energy. Beth Harris’s Lancaster, on the other hand, expended energy, strutting and defying, dripping with scorn for a man he could barely bring himself to call his king (NB characters’ traditional gendered pronouns usually remained in place, even when costumes emphasized the actors’ different gender presentation). Madison Rudolph’s linked fingers at Warwick belied a warrior who leapt into impulsive action when provoked, taking it upon himself to punch Keith Taylor’s Gaveston hard before handing over to a hired murderer for the killing blow. And Pembroke (Dylan Mabe) cut an unobtrusive presence, often hiding at the back of the pack of nobles, conscientiously taking notes; his narrative, though, seemed to appeal to Edward, who welcomed him into the royal fold at the end of the production’s first half.

More important than the individual presentations of rigid enforcement of patriarchal authority, though, were the shapes cut by these nobles as a collective. In concert with Ariel Tatum’s blue-suited Mortimer Jr. (of whom more anon), the five smartly dressed, and mostly single-coloured, nobles swarmed as much as moved. At times they clustered in a too-tight bundle, as if speaking in one; then they would fan out into an intimidating line to face Edward. The shapes they created formed organically, but spoke to the strength of their shared purpose and their formidable force when operating in unison.  

Edward’s court, on the other hand, was a collective of individuals, who created looser, messier shapes. In one very funny sequence, reminiscent of the famous moment in Game of Thrones where Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion laboriously drags a heavy chair around a council table, a smiling Edward responded to the united front of the nobles by turning his throne around to face them in a parody of their formal line, before pulling Gaveston over by his chest harness and seating him there. Left to their own devices, Edward’s courtiers were more relaxed. Durfee’s Spencer Jr. sprawled on the floor, Gaveston lounged, and even Madison Mayberry’s smartly dressed Arundel let her hair down with a glass of champagne following a victory. It was left to Kailey Potter’s Kent to try and insert order into this court. However informal his surroundings, Kent stood as rigidly as any of the opposing nobles, both emphasising his importance as Edward’s de facto bodyguard (in one fun moment, he snatched away the toy sword that young Prince Edward [Cameron Taylor] was waving around) and also prefiguring his defection to the opposing army. Before the defection, though, it was Kent who took point when the two sides faced off against one another, shaping Edward’s more disparate assemblage into a defensive posture.

The opposition centered on Edward, and by extension on Gaveston. Metz struck a difficult balance as this king, crucially never allowing his authority to waver. This Edward could show weakness, but he was able to show weakness precisely because of his strength; even when he sank to his knees at the lip of the stage, his attendants still kept a respectful distance, and only Spencer (who enjoyed particularly persuasive intimacy with Edward) was able to approach him more informally, touch him, and produce a pick-me-up drink. When Edward was challenged, however, he was tempestuous. Facing arrest by Andrew Steven Knight’s Leicester and Keith Taylor’s Trussel, Metz’s roar shook the Blackfriars, demonstrating the full power of a body which physically towered a head over almost everyone else. What this production understood was that love, particularly queer love, does not make one weak. Rather, Edward’s full embrace of Gaveston, tucking the smaller man into the depths of his chest; his unashamed physical closeness to his lover; his ability to smile in the face of nobles who never did (at least not with their eyes), were all part and parcel of his strength.

This strength attracted into his orbit those who depended on the kind of strength exhibited by Edward rather than that relied upon by the nobles, a strength that admitted of love and empathy and protection rather than force and intimidation. Gaveston was certainly capable himself, whether against obviously weaker foes (Durfee’s Bishop of Coventry was left flailing on the floor after Gaveston knocked him down and took his mitre; in a lovely bit of physical comedy, Knight’s Attendant then tried to drag the downed Bishop off by his feet, forcing Coventry to flap angrily to be allowed to get to his feet) or stronger ones, as when facing off against Lancaster and Mortimer Jr. Gaveston’s chest and leg harness connoted kink, especially when used by Edward to pull Gaveston towards him, but Gaveston’s forceful defiance of the nobles suggested a man who refused to be subordinate in the matter of defending himself. But in one of the production’s most effective moments of staging, Taylor emerged triumphant alone onto the stage during the battle, glorying in a moment of solitary victory, before almost immediately the nobles appeared from the corners of the auditorium, closing in and cutting him off at the point when he was isolated from Edward. Edward’s other hangers-on were more obviously dependent. Durfee and Chase Fowler built on their previous Treehouse double acts by introducing Spencer and Baldock as wrestling with Lady Margaret’s (Harrison) luggage; when the gossipy Margaret called upon Spencer to accompany her, he let his side of her trunk drop, forcing Baldock to drag it off by himself. Lady Margaret was another figure who depended on her uncle’s benevolence and was drawn into his circle, as were the amusingly camp French M. Levune (Levin), smoking a disaffected cigarette while wearing blue and white stripes and generally looking disdainfully on everyone, and Somerville’s vampirically caped queer elder, Spencer Sr. A delightful late addition to this network was Kara Hankard’s Abbot of Neath, who flounced on stage ecstatically glad to have the King in their presence, and who took the king’s head in their lap to provide him with a moment’s rest.

The two models of authority were evenly matched, and unbalanced by the disruptive combined forces of Tatum’s Mortimer Jr. and Richards’s ‘toxic’ Queen Isabella. Between the poles of queer idiosyncrasy and performative masculinity, Isabella was the production’s primary femme representation, though not without moments of camp excess (the brilliantly simple but always funny habit of taking off her shoes in anger). It was Isabella’s arrival that separated Mortimer Jr. from the main grouping of the nobles, shifting the tactics from upfront opposition to behind-the-scenes skull-duggery. From thereon, Mortimer Jr. kept finding ways to separate from the other nobles, whether moving away from the line that Edward organized them into during a temporary reconciliation, to curving around instead of exiting after one scene in order to stand next to the throne with Mortimer Sr. What was particularly fascinating is how Isabella’s and Mortimer Jr’s goals aligned while their demeanours were so different; Mortimer Jr. stayed aloof, distant, allowing smiles of pleasure to pass across his face as his plans came to pass; Isabella remained emotional, invested in not just her son but in her husband too, demanding to be seen and heard, and ultimately silenced by the young Prince as he ascended into his kingship.

For all the production’s moments of light relief (Henderson, appearing in tartan sash as a messenger, having to explain with a verbal eye-roll that the messages she was delivering came from, well, Scotland, was an entertaining highlight), the production always anticipated the darkness of the second half. Willis’s Lightborn was trailed early in transitions and side notes, a foreboding presence in all black and tails, with macabre smile and steely focus making clear the danger that he posed. The pre-show music following the interval anticipated the messy juxtaposition of violence (Cameron Taylor’s boisterous rendition of ‘Seven Nation Army’) with love and loss (Fower and Willis duetting on a poignant acoustic cover of ‘Here Comes the Rain Again’, accompanied by Thomas K. Prater on guitar).

Following Edward’s arrest, he was passed between increasingly intimidating presences. Knight’s Leicester was firm but not unkind as he explained to Edward that he would be sent to Kenilworth Castle; Maltravers (Mayberry) then took over as Edward’s handler, striking an aggressive, direct figure reminiscent of the first half’s nobles (by now, almost all dead). But Lightborn supplanted all of these. Lightborn seemed to exist outside of this world’s hierarchical structure; he was, for instance, already loitering by the throne while waiting to be summoned by Mortimer Jr., and there was a sense that, while Mortimer Jr. clearly knew what he was doing in employing Lightborn, he might not have anticipated just how much pleasure the murderer would take from this. Walking past Maltravers and Gourney dismissively as he handed over his authorizing documents, Lightborn immediately made himself at home in the space, clicking his fingers to have the tiring house curtains opened to reveal Edward, blinking and stumbling in the sudden light.

The history of Edward carries with it the weight of the inevitable, but this production’s final diagonal slant insisted on neither corroborating or denying history, but rather questioning the role of history at all. Following Lightborn’s manipulative care-taking and soothing of Edward, at the moment of death, the production abandoned Marlowe altogether. Instead, the members of Treehouse emerged, one by one, to stand united as they read out the order of events, then questioned the veracity of this history, interspersed with lines from Richard II’s ‘let us sit upon the ground’ speech and new poetry. The production refused to indulge in the spectacularization of Edward’s murder, instead reframing Edward’s history within a history of violent perversions of LGBTQ+ love. The production mourned Edward rather than kill him, and Lightborn’s smiling perversion was thus subverted.

The production thus ended in solemn terms. Isabella and Mortimer Jr. offered defiance of the young King Edward III, now formally dressed and no longer playing with toys, as he stood before his mother and condemned her to death, having earlier failed to act to save his uncle Kent. Isabella’s emotional displays still seemed to move her child, but not to affect his choices, and he took his throne to the instrumental sounds of Coldplay’s ‘Viva la Vida’, with its evocation of pyrrhic victory. This production couldn’t unwrite Edward’s history; it could, however, offer a new perspective on what should be remembered about Edward, and by ending on the young king taking his father’s throne and hoping to uphold a legacy, it offered what hope it could for new stories to be told.

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