York Shakespeare Project unwraps fantasia of love and power in Marlowe’s Edward II

Alan Sharp’s Warwick, James Tyler’s Lancaster, James Lee’s Gaveston, Emma Scott’s Young Mortimer and Cassi Roberts’s Kent at work on York Shakespeare Project’s Edward II. Picture: John Saunders

AT the heart of phase two of York Shakespeare Project over the next 25 years is the mission to stage not only all of Shakespeare’s plays, but also the finest works of his contemporaries.

The Bard’s first rival in focus will be playwright, poet and translator Christopher “Kit”  Marlowe, writer of The Tragicall History of Dr Faustus; Tamburlaine The Great; Dido, Queen Of Carthage; Edward II; The Massacre At Paris and The Jew Of Malta.

York Shakespeare Project (YSP) will stage his intimate historical tragedy Edward II (a.k.a. The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England) under the direction of Tom “Strasz” Straszewski at Theatre@41, Monkgate, York, from October 17 to 21 at 7.30pm plus a 2.30pm Saturday matinee.

Edward II is king at last. Determined to shower his loved ones with gifts, he summons his exiled lover, Piers Gaveston, 1st Earl of Cornwall. In the face of a king, court and country intoxicated by their passions, the Queen takes her own lover, whereupon the nation is torn apart in a merciless divorce. Their child watches from the shadows, desperate to mend this broken family and nation or bring them to heel.

“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,” says the director.

Tom Straszewski: director of York Shakespeare Project’s Edward II

Here Tom Straszewski discusses kings and queens, sexuality and social mobility, drag and cancel culture with CharlesHutchPress

What attracted you to directing Marlowe’s Edward II, Strasz?

 “I’d just come off the back of directing Lincoln and York’s Mystery Plays and was looking for the next challenge. Edward II came at the perfect moment – something more intimate, but still engaging with a community cast and their own ideas for the play. 

“YSP were good enough to trust me with their first non-Shakespeare play. I knew I wanted to treat it 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.”

How will you bring contemporary resonance to this age-old story of the struggle for love and power? 

“The historical Edward II has tended to be portrayed as a weak king. He lost to the Scots, he wasn’t interested in taking over more land in France, there was a Europe-wide famine…but it’s been horribly tied to debate over his sexuality.

Cassi Roberts, back left, as Kent, Emma Scott as Young Mortimer, James Lee as Gaveston, Thomas Jennings as Lightborn, Stuart Lindsay as the Bishop, Emily Hansen as Pembroke and Alan Sharp as Warwick in rehearsal for York Shakespeare Project’s Edward II. Picture: John Saunders

“The cast were generally wary of judging Edward by medieval standards. Did we really want to judge him for failing to conquer other countries? What we found was a king whose downfall isn’t in rejecting his love for Gaveston or failing to make war, but failure to keep his community safe. 

“What’s resonated with many of us is the dramatic increase in transphobia over the last few years.  Because of that, we’ve framed power and love as two ways of finding safety. For the nobles, having power lets them keep their loved ones safe. Edward protects Gaveston because he loves him, because it’s the right thing to do – whatever the cost.”

How did you bring drag into your considerations on how to present Edward II?

“It draws on the glamour of royalty. Drag queens, drag kings, it’s about finding something powerful in how you present yourself to the world. So we call our production a fantasia. A work of the imagination, of imagery and visions, rather than pure plot.

“Originally it meant ‘to shine’, and that’s something we’ve engrained in the play: a world of shining gold and dripping pearls, and the seductive shimmer of power and passion. Underneath all that are ordinary people, striving for something glorious.” 

Cassi Roberts as Kent, left, and Emma Scott as Young Mortimer. Picture: John Saunders

What drew you to casting YSP Jack Downey, James Lee and Danae Arteaga Hernandez in the principal roles of Edward II, Gaveston and Queen Isabel?
“When we first auditioned, we were looking for an ensemble who could all work together. We didn’t know who might be in each part, as long as they brought curiosity and bravery. As we got into the guts of the play, it became clear that James and Jack played off each other.

“There’s something of the current monarch in Jack’s portrayal – torn between his real love on one side, and the rejected wife on the other. James’s Gaveston allows Edward to be gentle, to shrug – for a moment – the weight of kingship off his shoulders.

“Danae has been a real revelation as Queen Isabel, particularly paired with Emma Scott’s Young Mortimer. She’s constantly described as weeping or mourning, but Danae’s found the power behind that.

“I’m also delighted that familiar faces have returned, often bringing something surprising, something I hadn’t seen them do before. Emily Hansen’s found a steely core in Pembroke’s moderation. Harry Summers’ Elder Mortimer gives a wonderfully tender paean to love between men, behind his desire to bash some heads in.”

James Lee’s Gaveston, left, and Jack Downey’s Edward II

How does Jack Downey interpret Edward II?
“Jack’s Edward uses weakness as a weapon. He threatens to give his crown away, knowing nobody wants the responsibility. He’ll lie down in the middle of the stage and see if people will really dare to brutalise him. And they back down! He wins!

“Then he starts playing the game on the other’s terms: starts wars, executes his prisoners, abandons his friends for his own safety. That’s when it falls apart. “And what Emma Scott has brought to Young Mortimer is a noble who recognises this, responds to it – she doesn’t rant and bully people, but tries to lead them along with a smile (and the threat of her knife behind it).”

How are today’s issues of cancel culture, celebrity and social mobility woven into your Edward II?

 “If our play is a fantasia, we looked at other forms of power and display than the monarchy – and celebrity is chief among them. How we present ourselves and who lies behind it are often different. For Gaveston, he’s met the right people, helped out his friends, risen above his poor background.

 Stuart Lindsay as the Bishop, left, Charlie Barrs as Maltravers and Thomas Jennings as Lightborn. Picture: John Saunders

“Gaveston’s enemies don’t see it that way. His crime is not loving the king, but getting rich off it, and they don’t see what he’s done to deserve it. They’ve suffered to keep their people safe. He hasn’t.

“Gaveston and Edward fail to control the narrative, and so they lose their supporters, their fans I guess! The play constantly references the medieval wheel of fortune: if you rise, you must fall. And we can see how quickly someone can rise and fall today.” 

What will the set and costume design be? 

All the actors have brought their own designs to the mix, based on their understanding of the characters. Expect to see a little Hollywood glamour, mirrored vanities, gold and pearls. Makeup as a source of power. Underneath it, the decay of the fall.”

York Shakespeare Project’s poster for Edward II

Where will music fit into your production?
“Music comes out in moments of power and desire. Serenades to the king, a power number gearing up for war, a bit of techno. We’ve drawn on what suits the moment. Each of Edward’s lovers sing to him. For example, The Ink Spots’ I Don’t Want to Set The World On Fire: its refrain of ‘Believe me’ is key to it all.”

And finally, Strasz, how do you “rate” his rival Marlowe by comparison with Shakespeare? 

“You don’t! You shouldn’t! They were collaborators; they almost certainly worked on Henry VI together; there are phrases and situations that they share. Maybe Shakespeare’s later works have a certain tenderness that Marlowe’s early plays lack, but then Shakespeare had decades of experience beyond Marlowe’s death.

“Marlowe’s not interested in broad comedy, although his insults are witty. But I think he’s willing to let his lead characters let loose at the world. Shakespeare’s characters enjoy the rise to power. Marlowe’s better at the fall.” 

Tickets are available at tickets.41monkgate.co.uk or by emailing the box office at boxoffice@41monkgate.co.uk.

Tony Froud: Chair of York Shakespeare Project

Only One Question for: York Shakespeare Project chair Tony Froud

Why will York Shakespeare Project feature works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries in its second cycle of productions?

“AS we embarked on phase two, we wanted to stretch ourselves afresh, in a way matching the great ambition of the original project’s aim (to do all the plays in 20 years). Producing all of Shakespeare’s plays again is a mighty task in itself and will offer new challenges in presenting the texts in new ways for different times. 

“But we were mindful that Shakespeare did not exist in a vacuum.  Many of his contemporaries were great playwrights in their own right, and there are so many exciting Elizabethan and Jacobean plays that we want to share over the next 25 years.”

As York Shakespeare Project opens phase two with Edward III at Black Swan Inn, director Tony Froud looks at the future

Mark Hird: Taking the role of King Edward in tonight’s rehearsed reading of Edward III by the York Shakespeare Project at the Black Swan Inn

PHASE two of York Shakespeare Project (YSP) begins tonight with a staged rehearsed reading of Edward III upstairs at the Black Swan Inn, Peasholme Green, York, at 7.30pm.

This rarely performed 1592 history play is now widely accepted as a collaboration between William Shakespeare and Thomas Kyd, replete with its celebration of Edward’s victories over the French, satirical digs at the Scots and depiction of the Black Prince.

Rehearsed February readings will be a regular part of YSP’s broadened remit to include work by the best of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, alongside a second staging of all his works, over the next 25 years.

Tony Froud’s cast will be led by Pick Me Up Theatre luminary Mark Hird in the title role. “At short notice, I’ve been able to bring together a strong cast that mixes YSP stalwarts, such as Liz Elsworth and Emma Scott, with new faces to us, such as Mark,” says Tony.

Hird’s King Edward will be joined by Elsworth’s Derby and Queen Philippa; Scott’s Gobin de Grey, Villiers, Frenchman 3 and Captain; Ben Thorburn’s Prince Edward; Nell Frampton’s Warwick and Salisbury; Bill Laverick’s Audley and Messenger and Stuart Lindsay’s Lodowick, Frenchman 4 and King David.

In the company too are: Sally Mitcham’s William Montague, Jon Copland, Herald 1, Frenchman 2 and Earl Douglas; Joy Warner’s Squire, Artois and Frenchman 1; Tom Jennings’s Herald 2 and Prince Charles; Jodie Fletcher’s Herald 3, Lorraine, Mariner and Messenger 2; Harry Summers’ King John and Lara Stafford’s Prince Philip and Countess Salisbury.

“It will be a one-night-only show, following the pattern of Ben Prusiner’s season of John Fletcher comedies and Jim Paterson’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which showed the impressive quality of performance that can be achieved in a short time by a good cast,” says Tony.

“The rehearsed reading puts a great emphasis on the language, so do come along to meet some colourful characters and hear some fabulous language in a plot that will take you from London to Calais via Northumberland and Crecy.”

YSP completed its mission to perform all 37 of  Shakespeare’s plays within 20 years with last September’s tour of The Tempest, but it had long been decided the project would continue. “The committee made the decision after about 15 years that YSP would do another cycle,” recalls Tony.

Why do Phase two? “Shakespeare is always relevant and will always find a new audience, and YSP will continue to find new ways to present Shakespeare suitable to the times,” says Tony.

“We will always be open to challenging ways of performing Shakespeare, like we did for Maggie Smales’s all-female Henry V.

“When you think that YSP’s first production of Richard III was in 2002, 21 years later we will look at politics, power and corruption through today’s lens in our new Richard III in April. All those things will be pertinent to anyone who has had their eye on Westminster in the last few years.”

Tony Froud: Directing York Shakespesare Project’s rehearsed reading of Edward III

More than 300 actors have performed in YSP productions to date. “It’s a matter of principle that we always have open auditions for our directors and our actors, so we ensure that we’re open to new ideas and new talent,” says Tony.

“That will continue with Dr Daniel Roy Connelly’s cast of 16 for Richard III, which will be a rich mix of faces familiar and new. We’ve often gained from our association with York’s universities and that will again be reflected in this cast.”

Tony welcomes the decision to expand YSP’s brief in phase two. “It’s very exciting to open up the opportunity to perform the best writing of the time beyond Shakespeare to see how his contemporaries have contributed to that extraordinary period of dramatic writing,” he says.

“We’ll be doing that when we put on Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II, and also through the annual series of rehearsed readings, which will allow us to explore less commercial texts too.”

Next year’s plays are scheduled to be on the theme of the Plantagenets. “It will be interesting to see what ideas come up for combining Shakespeare’s plays in different ways to phase one,” says Tony.

YSP will be looking to add new sites too. “Like we did outdoors at Holy Trinity Church and the Bar Convent [Living Heritage Centre], which both made very atmospheric venues for our Sonnets shows,” says Tony. “Doing Edward III upstairs at the Black Swan is another example of doing that.

“We plan to open up to new audiences, especially in the summer when we do the Sonnets, and we’ll look to do more of what we did on the outdoor space at Shakespeare’s Rose Theatre.”

Since last October’s annual general meeting, a new committee of nine has been in place. “The likes of Frank Brogan and Janet Looker, who had seen the original project through to its completion, decided to take a well-earned rest from their long involvement.

“Now we have a committee of mainly young members, who will be bringing a lot of energy and new ideas,” says Tony, 68, who will represent the older brigade alongside Sam Valentine. “Hopefully a lot of the younger members will still be involved in 25 years’ time.”

York Shakespeare Project has charity status and its shows must keep a tight rein on budgets. “We have to be very careful with our finances. Very few of our Shakespeare productions have made a profit, so we have to be creative and look elsewhere to ensure our continued success,” says Tony.

“The directors receive an honorarium, but outside that role, we rely on the talents and generosity of a host of volunteers for each production.”

Tickets for tonight’s 7.30pm performance cost £5 on the door or at eventbrite.com/e/edward-iii-tickets-518511741577Looking ahead, Dr Daniel Roy Connelly’s debut YSP production of Richard III at Friargate Theatre, Lower Friargate, York, will run from April 26 to 29.

York Shakespeare Project launches phase two with January auditions for Richard III UPDATED 4/1/2022

York Shakespeare Project in The Tempest in Autumn 2022. A new chapter will open in springtime

DR Daniel Roy Connelly is to direct the first production of York Shakespeare Project’s second cycle of Shakespeare plays.

As was the case when YSP began its 20-year mission to present all the Bard’s works with the October-November 2002 production of Richard III at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre, so Richard of York’s winter of discontent will be the opening play once more, this time at Friargate Theatre from April 26 to 29.

Dr Connelly, a newcomer to York, will be at the helm, having directed in places as diverse as Shanghai, Rome, America and the Edinburgh Festival.  

This former British diplomat, theatre director, actor, poet and professor will hold auditions at Southlands Methodist Church, in Bishopthorpe Road, on January 10 and 11, from 6.30pm to 9.30pm, and January 14, 2pm to 5pm.

Those interested are asked to fill out the form below to secure an audition slot: https://forms.gle/T4F7Q7aHJCFAqnWe8

Dr Daniel Roy Connelly: Director of York Shakespeare Project’s 2023 production of Richard III

“If you want to audition, but these dates don’t suit, please indicate on the form and we will see what we can do,” advises YSP’s Facebook notice.

Richard III will be one of two YSP productions at the 2023 York International Shakespeare Festival. Auditions for a semi-staged version of Shakespeare’s narrative poem The Rape Of Lucrece, directed by Liz Elsworth, will take place in late-January.

This autumn, YSP completed its goal of performing all 37 of Shakespeare’s plays with its 35th production and first tour: Philip Parr’s production of The Tempest, whose travels concluded at York Theatre Royal on October 1.

YSP begins a new chapter in 2023 with a 25-year project to stage not only those plays again, but also the best works by his contemporaries.

“This expanded remit allows both for a new generation-spanning mission to perform the whole canon of Shakespeare’s works, alongside a wider vision of celebrating and sharing Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre with new audiences,” says YSP.