BE warned. Expect to be splashed by water if you sit in the front row, comes the polite advice on arrival at Theatre@41, Monkgate.
Welcome to the new age of York Shakespeare Project, splashing around in works by Shakespeare’s rivals as a key part of phase two over the next 25 years. Rival number one: the ill-fated Christopher “Kit” Marlowe.
We are used to the spillage of blood as the bodies pile up in Elizabethan and Jacobean tragedies, but water? Jack Downey’s Edward II will end up bedraggled, buckets of water poured over his head, containing autumnal leaves too, in a child’s paddling pool: a fate almost as ignominious as his fabled “lamentable” death by red polka hot.
That exit awaits his malevolent executioner: Thomas Jennings, back on crop-haired hitman duty again as Lightborn after his cutthroat cameos, camera in hand, in April’s Richard III. Stereotyping maybe, but again he takes the scene-stealing honours.
Not only water is splashed about in director-designer Tom Straszewski’s Edward II. So is gold, chucked across the back wall like a Roy Lichtenstein Pop Art explosion; splattered on Edward II’s trousers and across his forehead; emerging from his back pocket in the colour of his handkerchief.
In paper and ribbon, gold is wrapped around a heap of presents that Edward will bestow, along with titles, as freely and as ill-deserved as those winners of the Boris Johnson lottery, otherwise known as the 2022 Prime Minister’s Resignation Honours list.
Always touched by your presents, dear, but all that glisters is not gold for Downey’s Edward II, although he puts up a better fight than the weak king of earlier incarnations.
Straszewki, or Strasz as he likes to be known for short, introduces his bravura production from the end-on stage with a mischievous look in his eye, directing YSP for the third time with flinty humour, dollops of drag culture. fresh faces aplenty, and serious points to make about cancel culture, identity (Young Edward/Princess Edie), sexuality and social mobility (or immobility).
“Like Marlowe himself, we wanted to focus less on historical accuracy or psychological realism, and instead as a fantasia of power and love. This is a fearful England,” mused the director.
Not only the power of love, but the love of power, craving it, attaining it, keeping it, losing it, or even not wanting it in the case of Edward’s young daughter Princess Edie (Effie Warboys), who treats the crown like a poisoned chalice.
We first encounter Miss Warboys seated at a table, in front of a dressing-room mirror, being filmed on a screen that carries the text for the benefit of deaf audience members. Playing Edward and Queen Isabel’s daughter, she is flicking idly through fashion magazines, cutting out pictures of the glitterati, silently watching from the shadows, “desperate to mend her broken family and nation”…or “bring them to heel”, as Strasz adds in his notes.
This is indeed the essence of a dysfunctional family. Edward has his irons in another fire, obsessed with Piers Gaveston (James Lee), his jumped-up, preening, exiled lover who so angers the court (James Tyler’s overwrought Lancaster, York tour guide Alan Sharp’s Warwick, Harry Summers’ Mortimer Senior) and the clergy (Stuart Lindsay’s Bishop) alike.
And above all, Queen Isabel (Danae Artega Hernandez, in her first full-scale role since playing the Angel Gabriel in high school days), who duly takes her own lover. Ever glummer, despite the glamour, divorce and plans to bring down Edward will inevitably follow.
There is no place for a quiet life here, much as Princess Edie might initially crave one, and safety may be sought but is never found. Social climbing is all the rage, whether Lee’s flash-harry, Beatle-booted Gaveston, Emma Scott’s outstanding Mortimer Junior or Adam Kadow’s foppish Spenser, beneath a bird’s nest of peroxide Johnson hair.
Strasz wanted to wanted to “treat Edward II as a queer play, not just in terms of the love between Edward and Gaveston, but as something that challenges what it means to be powerful”. He does exactly that, and successfully too, as power proves to be as slippery as soap.
“Underneath all that [shimmering gold] are ordinary people, striving for something glorious,” he argues. He has found it with this modern-day reading of Edward II that gives both the play and YSP new life.
Lee, Scott and Downey are the new generation of bold YSP leads, and there is much else to enjoy here, especially the use of make-up as a source of power; the lipstick slashes across the throat to signify imminent exits stage left, and the music: serenades and a power ballad, and each of Edward’s lovers crooning The Ink Spots’ I Don’t Want To Set The World On Fire. Maybe not, but Strasz does.
Performances: 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm, 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: tickets.41monkgate.co.uk.