The prisoner (Marc Vietor), naked save for a loincloth and covered in filth, is hauled to his unsteady feet and sodomized with a burning poker. Suddenly, waterboarding seems almost quaint. That scene of royal skewering doesn’t actually appear in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward the Second. Though widely rumored as the means of the English king’s death, Marlowe leaves the poker out, contenting himself with the stage direction, “King Edward is murdered.” But Jesse Berger, the director of Red Bull Theater’s Edward the Second, doesn’t approve of such reticence. He insures we see Edward’s every convulsion—not to mention countless bloody gunshots and stabbings elsewhere in the play. Should a character have the misfortune to die offstage, Berger soon presents the body.
Berger first displayed his liking for tragedy as Grand Guignol with The Revenger’s Tragedy
two years ago. As in that production, Edward the Second‘s action moves quickly, the actors speak their lines with welcome clarity, and everyone looks great. (Berger stages Garland Wright’s adaptation of the play, which reduces the cast, fiddles a bit with the line order, and generally streamlines the proceedings.) But while the merrily amoral universe of The Revenger’s Tragedy doesn’t invite much intellectual consideration and emotional engagement, Edward the Second does. Or ought to. A more sophisticated play than The Revenger’s Tragedy, and one with a historical basis, it explores the conflicts between desire and power, the individual and the state, treason and loyalty. Though Berger mentions these clashes in his director’s note, he seems more interested in exploring how good the cast looks in their costumes. (Very good, incidentally.)
Most revivals and reimaginings of the play focus either on Edward’s passion for his favorite, Gaveston (like Derek Jarman’s film), or on the political struggle between the nobles and the king (like Brecht’s rewriting). Berger’s prefers neither. Though it’s something of a relief to see a play not overlaid with social or political agendas, Berger concentrates too much on the stylistic and the visual. While Marlowe’s poetry—in this work at least—may not equal Shakespeare’s, it’s something of a problem if, upon leaving the theater, one thinks not of the turns of phrase or imagery, but instead about Queen Isabella’s severe ’40s hairstyles and how one might replicate them. Poor Marlowe, upstaged by the most unkindest cut of all.