First published in The Times, Wednesday July 18
The history of LGBT rights in the UK goes hand in hand with Edward II’s production history. Though the title is now synonymous with queer art, Christopher Marlowe’s 1594 tragedy didn’t come out of the closet until the late 1960s, thanks to an infamous staging from Prospect Theatre Company that made explicit the homoerotic content. A small screen version of the same production (which starred Ian McKellen) included the first gay kiss to be shown on British television.
Derek Jarman’s 1991 film adaptation pinned Marlowe’s play to the Eighties era of Section 28 (which banned discussion of same-sex relationships in schools) and AIDS activism. Jarman further enhanced Edward’s passion for Piers Gaveston, emphasising the lovers’ persecution at the hands of a disgruntled establishment and depicting their followers as Outrage activists.
Gordon Barr’s pared-back production for Bard in the Botanics builds bridges between those at times dark episodes in the history of gay rights and the optimism of now. The director invokes the voices of Lord Wolfenden, whose report led to the decriminalisation of homosexuality, and Margaret Thatcher, giving a speech to the Tory Party conference in 1987 foreshadowing Section 28 and culminates in Nicola Sturgeon’s apology on behalf of the Scottish Government to all men convicted of those once-illegal sexual offences.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Barr stages the reunion between Edward (Laurie Scott) and his favourite (Charlie Clee) with an appropriately joyful lack of ambiguity. There are plenty of loose-lipped kisses and embraces that leave the imprint of the king’s shirt buttons on his lover’s T-shirt. Clee makes for a charismatic Gaveston whose portrayal here recalls one of Jean Genet’s leather-clad antiheroes who can’t quite believe the upturn in his fortunes. Scott overcomes his character’s petulance in the face of opposition to record some moving scenes, notably in the emotionally wrought finale. Esme Bayley gives a nuanced performance as Edward’s queen, Isabella, who, neglected by her husband, throws her lot in with the ambitious Mortimer (a thuggish Andy Clark).
Inevitably, Barr’s focus on the love story tends to overshadow the explorations of power and society in Marlowe’s play. The director compensates for the lack of stage décor with a rich musical soundtrack, some of which is a little too on the nose (Secret Love, Jo Stafford’s recording of No Other Love), and at times drowns out or distracts from the sensuousness of the language.
Pic: Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Still, there is palpable poignancy to watching the production (part of Bard’s “Writing the Renaissance” strand) in Glasgow on the day of the huge Pride march, led by Scotland’s first minister, with several members of the audience taking their seats still flushed from the rally and propping up their rainbow-festooned placards against their seats.