God damn it, I do not have time to write as I would like about the Actors' Shakespeare Project's Edward II
, which I just got back from seeing with my cousins and nineweaving
, but it was wonderful. I did not know until we were leaving that director David R. Gammons was responsible for the stunning Duchess of Malfi
that introduced me to the ASP in 2009, but I had started to wonder in the second act based strictly on the staging and lighting. His director's note
is worth reading. I am sorry only that I cannot send everyone I know to see it because tonight was the last show of the run. This is worse than my usual problem of reviewing the second-to-last performance. It was a dense and beautiful production; I might as well have some record of it.
You walk into the black box of the Charlestown Working Theater
and you find yourself in the fantasia of a bathhouse: shower-white tile and undressed brick, plastic curtains and graffiti, the private subterranean space where a man can meet another man and kiss him full on the mouth in the knowledge that no one will try to kill them for it. (Other things may‚ÄĒthe wall over the toilet is scrawled "SILENCE = DEATH" and the wall behind the audience bears the white-on-black legend "UNDIQUE MORS EST"‚ÄĒDeath is everywhere
. The play is not anchored to the 1980's, but they set much of the tone.) Steam drifts by from the fog machine. There is often a sound of water when there is not the echo of music. By low incandescence it's intimate, by fluorescence it's grody, it takes on a dance-club aura when suffused pink or purple and when the lights fall to warning red it's a bomb shelter. There is a catwalk above and a ladder going up a far wall. There is a tin bath. There is the royal throne, a plain gold chair with a crimson cushion. In that last piece of dressing lies the trick and the tragedy of this bathhouse: it is not a secret or a safe space, because Edward is the king of England. Nowhere he goes is truly private. Nothing he does is in isolation from his realm. His reunion with the recalled Gaveston is a slow, urgent, athletic dance, powerfully expressive of the chemistry and the affection between them, culminating in the transgressive sight of the low-born Gaveston with his feet tucked up on the throne like a cat in its favorite armchair, the gift of his king's great ring hanging about his throat, his slim body swathed in the black-and-gold brocade of Edward's robe. They cuddle and Gaveston snaps on the TV; a music video washes soundlessly across the tiled wall. They could be any harried but happy couple, hiding away from the world in each other's arms. They look at each other like no one else exists. They were watched from the catwalk by the disapproving Earl of Lancaster and now he confers with ambitious, malicious Mortimer, sourly cataloguing the titles and honors that the king is lavishing on his "minion" while letting the rest of the country go hang. Especially because this production treats their relationship as true romance, I appreciated it also recognizing that the reality of their love does not constitute an excuse for Edward's shirking of his political responsibilities or his callous treatment of his queen Isabella, whose love for him was just as real and powerful and painfully unrequited. The play isn't a tragedy because Edward is queer. It's a tragedy because he's a king and he's so bad at it. His lover is just how his enemies get in.
My only other point of comparison for this play is Derek Jarman's Edward II
(1991), so I am happy to report that Gammons' production is very much its own thing, although I love how the director signals that he is perfectly aware of the career of Saint Derek of Dungeness of the Order of Celluloid Knights‚ÄĒthe music videos playing silently as Gaveston and Edward snuggle and Mortimer and Lancaster plot are the Pet Shop Boys' "Rent
" (I love you‚ÄĒyou pay my rent
) and the Smiths' "Ask
" (If there's something you'd like to try, ask me‚ÄĒI won't say no, how could I?
), both shot by Jarman.1
Both comment, of course, on the problem of Gaveston: it is one thing to dress a mistress with jewels, it's another to give a base-born man more rights and powers than any nobleman in the land. Eddie Shields' Gaveston shows little inclination to abuse his privileges for personal gain‚ÄĒthough he pronounces my knee shall bow to none but to the king
with provocative pride, on receiving his invitation to "share the kingdom" with the newly crowned Edward he imagines mostly that he will organize masques, dances, and music for his lover's delight‚ÄĒbut the class-crossing is insult enough. Of course, it does not help in the eyes of hard men like Edward's earls that Gaveston is a pretty man, slinky, snarky, and just a little bit of a bitch, with a conscious, flirtatious boyishness. He makes his first appearance naked, rising from his bath to drape himself in a strategic towel and dream of Edward. He knots the rich brocade of his sovereign's robe around his waist and it trails behind him in a more queenly train than Isabella's own gowns; he returns from exile in gilt stiletto heels and a sashaying, feather-trimmed coat open to show the ring that hangs against his chest and the light trail of fur that leads down into his tight black trousers. Maurice Emmanuel Parent's Edward can lift him outright in his arms, nuzzle him and flip the smaller man's weight around his shoulders like a swing dancer; part of what makes their relationship both believable and heartbreaking is their playfulness as well as their passion with one another, three-dimensional groundwork for Edward's maddening grief on his lover's loss. He too is a beautiful man‚ÄĒa beautiful Black man in a production where he is not the only actor of color‚ÄĒand also seen naked, though in the much more poignant circumstances of his imprisonment, crouched in the same tin bath where Gaveston woke, convulsively, from a bad dream that might have been a premonition in the first seconds of the play‚ÄĒand encompasses easily the difficult sympathy of a character whose decisions are almost all terrible and whom the audience still wants to see happy. His final scene was even more moving than I had hoped from realizing who would share the stage with him for it.
But all the cast are good. There are eight of them, condensed and doubled from Marlowe's thirtyish speaking parts. The rebellious barons become a pair of conspirators, Nigel Gore's Lancaster and Alex Pollock's Mortimer; the former carries himself with disgusted, soldierly efficiency while the latter is a pallid skinhead in black biker leathers, drawing out his creepily amused delivery and off-kilter swagger past the point of grotesquerie yet never losing his grasp on the verse, which is probably what saved him for me as an interpretation. (Whistling "YMCA" before the killing of Gaveston was almost a clockwork orange too far for me. The way he rattled off his Latin with a niceness all out of keeping with the rest of his persona may have brought him back.) Both bring knives openly into Edward's otherwise unarmed court. Watching the blades change hands among the cast, the audience can track each character's potential for violence, though not necessarily their chances of success. Moving with great dignity in her antique dress, Jennie Israel's Isabella turns against her husband only slowly, driven by the increasing cruelty of his rejections and the need to protect her son‚ÄĒthe future Edward III, played by David J. Castillo as a lanky, raspberry-haired teenager who would much rather lie up in the loft and listen to post-punk than have to witness his horrifying family drama‚ÄĒfrom the political storm she herself will not escape. Stewart Evan Smith makes a cocky, competent Spencer, with a wonderful stunned expression when kissed suddenly by his king in a defiant assertion of sexual and political identity, and Nile Hawver succeeded in making me feel for traitorous, hesitating Kent, who really does love his brother the king and really does care about the welfare of his country and by throwing in his lot with Lancaster and Mortimer absolutely guarantees his inability to protect either one of them. (The actor had fantastic hair, manga mad scientist quality; I liked that he looked good in the SS-ish black leather trenchcoat that he donned after betraying his brother and looked really uncomfortable about looking good in it. His total failure to make amends in the second act constituted an unexpected miniature tragic arc of its own.) I enjoyed how often all of them were allowed to shift registers, sometimes naturalistic, sometimes highly stylized, often some mix of the two; a particularly striking scene in the second act had the young Edward‚ÄĒas yet uncrowned, his father still in the Tower instead of his grave‚ÄĒpinned in the empty shaft of spotlight where the throne should have stood, twisting with nightmare slowness from his implacable mother to his desperate uncle to his mother's grinning lover, searching for truth, searching for security, finding nothing. I should have remembered this director's eye for compositions. One of the highlights of the first act was the unspeakably awkward welcome-home party for Gaveston, complete with decorated cake, nervously held mylar balloons, and boldly designed, impressively passive-aggressive shield devices. The concluding image of the play was not Jarman's, but it was Jarman-worthy, gilding and ambiguity and all.
And I cannot get out of this post without mentioning that this Edward II
had the best music of any stage production I've seen in a long time. The first song playing as the house opened was the Smiths' "How Soon Is Now?" (You shut your mouth‚ÄĒhow can you say I go about things the wrong way? I am human and I need to be loved just like everybody else does.
) At different points I heard Joy Division's "Transmission" (We would go on as though nothing was wrong and hide from the days to remain all alone
) and Killing Joke's "The Wait" (Motives changing day to day, the fire increases, mass decay
). The second act came up on Pylon's "Cool" with its scratchy, flourishy guitar riff, its bassline thrumming nervously in the aftermath of Gaveston's murder. The cast took their bows to the Smiths' "Panic" (also
filmed by Jarman), which I can only assume was an in-joke because I did not want to hang the DJ, I wanted to find them and thank them because I have never before heard that many songs I liked and recognized in a stage production unless it was a musical. If anybody knows the piece which accompanied Edward and Gaveston's lovemaking and reunion, please tell me; I think it had some of the Song of Songs in its lyrics, but I had never heard it before.  Nineweaving found it: David Lang's "Just (After Song of Songs)
." It's nice to know I heard the allusion correctly.
Right. This is less than I wanted, but longer than I intended. Next time I see David R. Gammons' name on a production, I should just get tickets whatever it is. I hope it's something as infrequently performed and rewarding as The Duchess of Malfi
or Edward II
. I am going to bed. I almost tagged this post for Patreon
1. In the process of checking that I had remembered his canonization correctly, I discovered that Derek Jarman actually thought about making a film about Alan Turing and I was then distracted by furious grieving. Do you have any idea how much I would have wanted to see that? I start wondering who he would have cast as Alan; I wonder if he would have cast Kevin Collins as Christopher. (Or as Arnold Murray? Double-cast? I saw a production of Breaking the Code that did that and it worked. I wonder if Tilda Swinton would have played Turing's mother.) I could see him treating the codes and mathematics as elliptically and understandably as the philosophy in Wittgenstein (1993). I don't know what he would have come up with for Turing that was as left-field as the Martian in Wittgenstein, but I know it would have worked. Even if he had just written the script, I would have wanted it. Fuck you, AIDS. Current administration, I can't believe you're making Reagan look good by comparison; he doesn't deserve to.