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Playing it for laughs proves a serious error

    New wave artists: Vanessa Kirby and John Heffernan with Bettrys Jones (Prince Edward)
    New wave artists: Vanessa Kirby and John Heffernan with Bettrys Jones (Prince Edward)

    Edward II
    Olivier, London SE1

    I t is a fine line that director Joe Hill-Gibbins riskily treads with Christopher Marlowe’s history play about a medieval king. It’s not that the director apparently sets his production simultaneously in the 13th and 21st centuries that is the gamble here. Nor is it that, with the help of Lizzie Clachan’s set and Chris Kondek’s video projection, entire scenes are depicted like the live feed from a guerrilla documentary projected on giant screens. All this is a lot of fun to watch, even if the effect can be more distracting than illuminating. No, the risk Hill-Gibbins takes is with humour.

    For Edward’s coronation, everyone breaks into a rendition of the (current) national anthem, which is not the only piece of heavy irony among many light-hearted moments.

    Scenes of conspiracy against the obsessed Edward (John Heffernan), who is in love with the exiled, now returned, then exiled again hell-raiser Gaveston (Kyle Soller), and which are presumably intended to generate tension, end up eliciting what sounds like unintended laughter from the audience. Edward’s Queen Isabella (Vanessa Kirby) is seen drawing deeply on a cigarette, while Matthew Pidgeon’s Earl of Warwick takes a phone call, and then hangs up with “I’ll call you back”.

    These and other moments were undoubtedly intended to be tongue in cheek. But when raising a laugh becomes risible, it can feel as if the evening is spinning out of control.

    What keeps it grounded is the sheer quality of the acting. As the gay monarch, Heffernan is feverish in his infatuation for Soller’s American-accented, rock star-like Gaveston. Playing the loose cannon, Soller stalks the stalls as well as the stage. His first speech — delivered from a seat high up in the Olivier Theatre’s auditorium — is one of the few when Marlowe’s language, rarely a priority here, shines.

    As Edward’s sexually abandoned queen, Kirby is also outstanding. Despite the luxurious blonde hair, her delivery summons memories of Diana Rigg at her most quick-witted and sardonic. She has a way of demystifying classic roles without cheapening them.

    But Hill-Gibbins’s production — clearly intended to be driven by directorial ideas rather than the actual play or performances — is the weakest link.

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