Saturday, 22 March 2014



BFI Southbank, 6.20pm, 15 March 2014

Two great English artists, Christopher Marlowe and Derek Jarman make for a thrilling and educational combination in Edward II.
With thank to Lili Gane.

'Some old queen or other...' (Image: BFI)

I made a huge cock up with this blog post earlier in the week, confusing Edward II and Richard II's authors, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare respectively. For some reason I've always confused these two plays; I'm reasonably educated, but at some level I'm obviously guilty of lumping all classical authors together. Interestingly, though, what I originally said about Edward II having contemporary relevance, when I was under the mistaken impression that the Bard had written it, also applies equally well to Marlowe.

Last week week was national William Shakespeare week, when 2,000 primary schools took part in initiatives to get more children interested in England's greatest ever playwright, an encouragingly progressive idea that should become an annual event. Hopefully, it should lead young minds on to an appreciation of other writers like Marlowe, John Webster et al. Very young children tend to be more open-minded than the cynical veterans of middle and high school. I well remember being a jaded fourteen year-old and confronted with my first Shakespeare play Julius Caesar, which I was convinced would be a passport to historical dullness.

I was wrong, of course. Thinking Shakespeare/Marlowe/Webster were boring was similar to thinking that The Beatles were boring because your teachers liked them (and they liked them all). The minute you heard all of Revolver, or saw Henry V performed live – at Lowestoft South Pier, no less, with Juliet Stevenson and Stuart Wilson – you suddenly understood what all the fuss was about. Although Will, Christopher, John and the Fabs are all cultural game changers, the reason the former three's works are still relevant and frequently performed hundreds of years after their deaths is because their plays concern universal constants like power, lust, love and revenge: in short, the dramatic bedrock of critical and popular TV and film hits like The Godfather, Breading Bad, House of Cards, The Sporanos and hundreds of others you might care to mention (including The Prisoner). Lennon and McCartney might be good, but they aren't that good.

All of which brings me neatly to Edward II (1991), the second film I was lucky enough to see as part of the BFI's Queer Pagan Punk Derek Jarman season. A more conventional film than the dark, free-form fantasia of The Garden – because, by and large, Jarman honours the text – I was entranced from the opening scene by the way he made Edward's court a sinister, enclosed world of gloomy, white-washed walls and passageways. OK, this was partly the result of a shoestring budget, but the fact that the outside world is rarely seen (another budgetary measure) becomes a virtue, adding to the feeling of claustrophobia.

The star cross'd lovers. (Image: BFI)
What surprised me the most about Edward II – and this again reinforces the continuing relevance of Marlowe's work – is that for such an old play it concerns the openly gay relationship between Edward (a sincere and sympathetic Steven Waddington; whatever happened to him?) and Gaveston (the superbly feral Andrew Tiernan, rather wasted these days playing Cockney villains). Edward’s kingdom was built on the support of the barons – gangsters, in modern parlance – and, when Edward awards Gaveston lands formerly belonging to the Bishop of Winchester (Dudley Sutton), the anti-Edward faction, fearing the same thing will happen to them, are led by Mortimer (Nigel he-should-have-won-a-BAFTA Terry) into civil war. 

The crucial, modern theme is that Edward and Gaveston’s sexuality isn't really the point. As a scene of Mortimer being serviced by two bisexual 'Wild Girls' makes clear, behind closed doors you could fuck who you liked, but if those private carnal pleasures began undermining established power structures, straight or gay you were in trouble. (This universal truth is visible in everything from the break-up of The Beatles to this year’s hit TV drama The Line of Duty). Edward was also passive and Gaveston dominant, which meant that the lower classes were literally shagging the monarchy, an element of class tension that Jarman plays up through Tiernan’s never-more-rough bit of rough. Offsetting this is Tilda Swinton’s glacial Isabella, the princess exiled from the king's bed. Initially portrayed as the wronged party (even if she wasn’t like that in real life), when she becomes sexually active again with Mortimer she begins a personal descent into rebellion and murder. Sex in general is the catalyst for chaos.  

The great thing about Jarman is that, like a lot of auteur directors before him, he obviously brings his own agenda to the play. I’ve seen Richard Loncraine interpret Richard III as a 1930s fascist leader’s rise to power and Baz Luhrman do a rave culture take on Romeo and Juliet, but in terms of classical drama, for me there’s nothing more powerful than a battle scene between the opposing factions in Jarman's Edward II reinterpreted as a gay demo. At the time of the reprehensible Clause 28, Jarman casts Mortimer’s troops as the Metropolitan Police’s Special Patrol Group (one of his personal bete noirs, who got a similar kicking in The Garden). Shown pounding their truncheons on riot shields to make the frightening sound they used to intimidate the miners in the 1984 strike, here they’re guilty of beating Gaveston to death. Elsewhere, there’s a great example of Jarman's exquisitely camp English humour, as a reunited Edward and Gaveston caper around to a comedy soundtrack with dance moves somewhere between Norman Wisdom and Max Wall. It’s typical of Jarman that the scene is both subversive – you’d never see Wills or Harry carrying on like that; well, Harry maybe – as well as very funny.  

Tilda does her best Young American. (Image: BFI)
Once Isabella and Mortimer have defeated Edward, they sit side by side on a huge throne like two excited children; a few scenes later, they’re shown locked up in a cramped cage as the young, gender bending Prince Edward happily dances on top. Jarman/Marlowe's point is that while rulers come and go, the towering machinery of the state endures and Isabella and Mortimer are simply the next victims, following Gaveston and Edward. By contrast with this bleak view, it’s in the changes Jarman makes to the text that his humanity is perhaps most visible. He cut a scene where Lightborn (the mesmerising Kevin Collins) makes a homophobic speech and while he includes the appalling way in which Edward was executed, here it’s shown as a nightmare by the deposed king who might, or might not, survive.

All that contemporary relevance in something that was written I-don't-know-how-many hundreds of years ago: amazing. In Jarman's hands, Edward II is also a stylish, gripping political thriller, and almost the definition of an accessible way into both Marlowe, classical plays generally and Jarman’s perhaps intimidating mindset. If those aren’t good things for young minds to discover and celebrate, I don’t know what are.  

See you at the IMAX for Blue.

Exit Fairclough, stage left.

No comments:

Post a Comment