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Edward II review (Malthouse, Melbourne)

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If post-show powwows following the opening of director Matthew Lutton and playwright Anthony Weigh’s Edward II suggested anything, it’s that this uncompromising production is theatre at its most divisive.

Purists, loyal to the pageantry and poetry of Marlowe’s 16th century history play, will no doubt brand this 21st century reboot as unwieldy, gratuitous or even vulgar. But for those who like their theatre a little more volatile (myself included), Lutton and Weigh have created something extraordinarily powerful: a complex and emotionally merciless study of love, in all its toxic forms.

Theatregoers with a hankering for the courtly pentameters of long-dead playwrights are inevitably going to find this Malthouse production problematic, so it’s important to note that this newly-penned Edward II exists in its own right, completely outside the orbit of its Elizabethan cousin. Rather than a dramatised history, this interpretation is squarely targeted on the psychological pathologies of its six characters, and the intersecting vectors of their desires, whether they be sexual, political, parental or obsessional. It’s a play that deals in a muddied and sometimes inscrutable morality, where the audience’s empathy is constantly pitted against the pitiless fates of deeply damaged people.

Broadly, the plot is more or less faithful. Ned (Johnny Carr), the heir to the throne, is not only unwilling to inherit his father’s crown, he is unfit to do so. His hedonism and promiscuous homosexuality seem incompatible with the solemn, regal responsibilities of ruling, but when his love affair with a low-born commoner, Piers (Paul Ashcroft), is prematurely ended by the manipulative Mortimer (Marco Chiappi), the prince’s irascible behaviour only escalates.

Upon the death of the king, Ned’s power-savvy wife Sib (Belinda McClory) allows his taboo affair to be rekindled, hoping that the new king’s steadied emotions will be reflected by a more steady reign – one that will eventually leave their son (Julian Mineo) a safe and stable kingdom. It’s a desperate miscalculation that sets in motion an unstoppable chain of fatal events.

Marlowe’s presence may be subtle, but there is a sense that Lutton banks on some level of cognitive counterpoint with his radical version. Much like his adaptation of Picnic at Hanging Rock earlier this year, using a familiar point of reference – like Marlowe’s history play or in the case of Hanging Rock, Peter Weir’s 1975 film adaptation – creates the depth perception needed to understand the distances this staging has travelled from its most traditional format.

This approach plays to Lutton’s strengths, as a theatre maker who thrives in discovering the uncharted territory in a well-worn story.

After Marlowe, Bertolt Brecht and Derek Jarman both gave Edward a 20th-century spin. Brecht’s innovation was to subvert the “lumpy monumental style” of Shakespearian hyperbole, while Jarman sought to make a political protest about gay rights in response to Thatcher’s infamous Section 28.

For their Edward II, Lutton and Weigh have discarded the historical specifics, swapping medieval England for an abstract, contemporary hinterland, represented by Marg Horwell’s sterile, museum-inspired set. The vacuum left by this rejection of factual complexity is filled by a red-raw spectrum of emotional extremes. The narrative is no longer about royalty and succession, or societal intolerances. It is, in its simplest terms, a love story, but one that shirks any sentimentality. Instead, it offers a brutally honest examination of the crushing, virulent reality of that most intense human expression.

Everything about Lutton’s production is geared to push past the comfort zones of both the audience and the cast. Ned’s gnarled lust for Piers is played out in lurid, semi-pornographic vignettes; his hatred of his stifling marriage to Sib results in graphic acts of domestic violence; elements of sexual gratification and titillating masochism are not so much insinuated as they are loudly trumpeted. Even Kelly Ryall’s superbly realised score occasionally blasts the audience with a deafening level of decibels. The experience is assaulting, at once both voyeuristic and violating, designed to expose our nerves and leave us shaken but alert.

The scale of this discomfort is mirrored by the magnitude of the pathos also found in this account. A desperate, terrified goodbye between Ned and Piers reveals a moment of heartbreaking tenderness. They quietly embrace as they hopelessly imagine a different life together, away from the corrosive effects of power and authority, knowing full well that this simple dream is out of reach.

From a technical perspective, this production is virtuosic. The demands on this cast are herculean; Weigh’s dialogue is colloquial, clipped and hard-edged, leaving very little room for error. Scenes change in rapid succession requiring sudden, unprepared shifts in emotion and character, followed by long stretches on stage, merely observing. Given these challenges, it’s perhaps understandable that some performances took time to warm up on opening night, although every member of the cast eventually hit their stride. Indeed, all six actors offered a level of unrestrained commitment to their performances that is rarely seen on stage. They lay themselves bare, figuratively and literally, and the persuasion of that intense vulnerability is unignorable.

If you were to ask if this production was an unequivocal success, the answer would be no, but that does not make this bold, fearless Edward II a failure. If the yardstick by which we quantify the accomplishments of theatre is merely a dull interest in safely played perfection, our curiosity and ambition as theatregoers would surely atrophy. Lutton is prepared to play a dangerous game with his work, and while this doesn’t always pay off, it’s through determined leadership like his that the next great benchmarks in contemporary theatre practice will be made.

Edward II is at Malthouse Melbourne until August 21. Photo by Pia Johnson

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