Review: Edward II @ Blue Orange Birmingham

Despite being one of the first great works of the English Renaissance, Marlowe’s Edward II is still comparatively rarely performed.

Indeed a whiff of sulphur hangs about it still, a taint of scandal, heresy even, like Marlowe’s own life – lowly-born, this scholar, spy, atheist and all-round mocker was supposedly murdered in a tavern brawl in 1593, although the house in question was in reality a safe house on the river at Deptford belonging to the niece of Queen Elizabeth’s own childhood nurse.

Under investigation by the Privy Council – no one knew where the next national threat would be coming from – and ordered to report to them every morning for a fortnight, on the 14th day Marlowe was supposedly stabbed during a row over the bill in the supposed ale house by Ingham Frizer, another spy who spent a month in prison for it until pardoned by none other than the Queen herself.

But most probably Marlowe had been spirited abroad as soon as the tide turned, an anonymous corpse buried in his place, and although the man himself passed out of history forever, his plays remain to tease and amaze us even now.

The real reason of course for the aura of darkness surrounding Edward II is that its subject is a king who prefers his gentlemen friends to his royal wife Isabella, and although it leads to his deposition, the subject is treated without judgementalism regarding his sexual orientation, its detachment making it perhaps the first great modern play.

Its real subject is power, and interestingly, despite depicting the deposition of a monarch it was performed at Greenwich for the Queen on one of the twelve nights of Christmas shortly after it premiered, so it is probable she knew the author – certainly she knew the play.

Did she spare Marlowe’s life by sending him abroad?

Director Ian Craddock’s authoritative new production is all the more to be lauded then as a rare opportunity to see this great masterpiece and make up our own minds as to its worth. His strong cast do him real credit in bringing to life a narrative filled with the whole range of human emotions, especially its dark side, from impassioned love to sheer implacable hate.

David Claridge makes an excellent job of portraying the spoilt and petulant Edward whose downfall is in reality his failure to understand the basis of feudal kingship, i.e. he is only the top of a pyramid built on preferments earned in battle. Ignoring this at his peril and promoting a foreign nobody, Piers Gaveston (played here with delightfully decadent relish by Nick Baldock) naturally enrages the barons since his promotions are based not on battlefield conquests but a rather more domestic arrangement in the King’s bedroom.

So when Queen Isabella, played here with lovely authority by Rosannah Lenaghan, joins in armed revolt with Edward’s principal critic the Young Mortimer (a powerful performance in this star part by Simon Garrington) the question of who has the right to rule is graphically played out as one of theatre’s most notorious endgames.

All this makes for one of the year’s must-see Midlands productions. Don’t miss it.

Edward II runs until Saturday (September 26). For tickets phone the Box Office on 0121 212 2643 or go online at