If a love that dare not speak its name was something of a stock-in-trade for William Shakespeare, for his contemporaries it was even more overt. Such a notion was at the forefront of Gordon Barr’s mind while programming this year’s Bard in the Botanics season of outdoor Shakespeares. Styled with the Star Cross’d Lovers imprimatur, the programme has already seen productions of Romeo and Juliet and Antony and Cleopatra depict generation-spanning amours across the grounds of Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens, with a fresh look at Much Ado About Nothing to come. It is Barr’s stripped-back adaptation of Edward II, penned by Shakespeare’s contemporary, Christopher Marlowe, that looks set to be the most provocative part of the programme.
“I love the fact that here is a play from the Elizabethan period, but talks so boldly about a homosexual relationship,” says Barr of Marlowe’s play, which focuses on King Edward’s very special alliance with Piers de Gaveston, who he makes Earl of Cornwall. All of this goes on while Edward’s queen, Isabella, is caught in the crossfire of what follows.
“In Shakespeare these sort of relationships is often only implied. His plays may depict friendships that teeter on the edge of something else, but they can be coy or ambiguous about it. To have a play like Edward II that spells out this relationship that is the core of the play from the very beginning, for me as a gay director who works on classical plays, that’s very exciting to see. In the rest of the Star Cross’d Lovers season there are three iconic couples, then in Edward and Gaveston in Edward II you have what was probably the first gay couple to be seen onstage, and that’s iconic as well.”
Performed by four actors in the Kibble Palace, Edward II is the second Marlowe production to appear as part of Bard in the Botanics, and follows on from company associate Jennifer Dick’s look at Doctor Faustus in 2016. Both form part of the company’s Writing the Renaissance strand, which aims to stage rarely performed works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries. This production also marks Barr’s second stab at Edward II following a production several years ago with acting students at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. Revisiting the play has proved fruitful for Barr.
“What’s coming out is that it feels a lot richer than I remember it being before,” he says. “Someone, and I wish I could remember who, talked about the mighty thump of Marlowe’s lines. His plays are very bold, and everything is big and out there, whereas Shakespeare is much more subtle and ambiguous. If Shakespeare is like a jazz musician, Marlowe is often thought of as being a bit more tub-thumping, but I think it’s much richer than that.
“His characters are more than regular human beings. There’s this terrible pain the central characters in the play are going through, and the Queen is trapped in this terrible situation. Edward is not just in love with someone else, but he’s in love with someone he can’t be with because of the rules of society at that time, and that becomes a real plea for more humanity.
Edward II has caused many a stir over the years. One of these came in 1970, when a stage production by the Prospect Theatre Company featuring Ian McKellan as Edward was adapted for a TV version that showed what was apparently the first gay kiss on British television. In Scotland, Stephen McDonald’s production in the same decade at the Lyceum Studio featured Philip Franks as Edward in an up close and personal rendering that also left its mark. The Citizens Theatre in Glasgow preferred to look to Brecht’s version of the story for their 1992 production featuring Laurance Rudic as Edward, while more recently mercurial Scottish star Liam Brennan took the play’s title role at Shakespeare’s Globe.
Derek Jarman’s 1991 film version featuring Tilda Swinton as Queen Isabella was done in modern dress and made overt references to the gay rights movement and the Stonewall riots. With typical Jarman flourishes, it also featured a cameo by Annie Lennox singing Cole Porter’s Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye, as well as dancers and co-founders of DV8 Physical Theatre company, Lloyd Newson and Nigel Charnock.
With the play already having such a heritage, Barr has set his production in the 1950s, when homosexuality in the UK was still illegal.
“It was a time when homosexuality was about to undergo a major sea-change,” says Barr. “Decriminalisation of homosexuality wasn’t far off, yet it was still a time when so many men were closeted. It was also a time of change for the monarchy, as Elizabeth II ascended to the throne. Here was this very young monarch, and nobody knew how it would work out.”
While revivals of Marlowe’s play don’t come around that often, when they do, they seem to chime with the times they appear. Barr’s production is no exception.
“It’s a play that seems to come up at times when sexual identity is being questioned,” he says. “In the 1970s there were quite a few major productions of it. We were just moving into a time when gay men were no longer required to toe the line. Doing Edward II today, you could definitely argue that the situation for gay men is the strongest it’s been for some time, but at the same time the right wing is on the rise, and as a gay man that makes you nervous.”
In this respect, Edward II is very much a warts and all play for today.
“Edward and Gaveston aren’t the nicest people in the world,” Barr admits. “They’re not martyred saints, and their behaviour towards the Queen is pretty abominable. But when you consider the fact that all they want is to be who they are, but are completely hounded throughout the play, with Edward dying in a horrible way, yes, they’re not perfect, but do they deserve that? When you think about that, ultimately the play becomes a plea for tolerance.”
Bard in the Botanics’ Star Cross’d Lovers season runs at the Botanic Gardens, Glasgow. Romeo and Juliet until July 7; Antony and Cleopatra until July 7; Much Ado About Nothing, July 11-28; Edward II, July 12-28.
The Herald, July 3rd 2018