York Shakespeare Project deep into rehearsals for first full-scale production by Bard rival, Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II

James Lee, left, as Gaveston and Jack Downey as Edward II in rehearsal for York Shakespeare Project’s Edward II. All reheasal pictures: 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.

Next week, the Bard’s 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 (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.

Strasz previously directed The Merry Wives Of Windsor in 2012 and The Two Noble Kinsmen in 2018, now joining Paul Toy, Mark France and Ben Prusiner as three-time directors for YSP. 

“We were delighted that Tom emerged from a strong field to be chosen as the director of the first non-Shakespeare play of YSP’s new project,” says chair Tony Froud.

“Strasz brings great knowledge and wide experience of directing Elizabethan and Jacobean drama and promises an innovative interpretation of Marlowe’s fascinating text.”

Cassi Roberts, left, as Kent and Emma Scott as Young Mortimer

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.

“This is a play about power and love – who has it, who gives it, who takes it, and who suffers for it,” says Tony. “For this production, we began by exploring the play through creative workshops, editing a script that reflects the people in the room. No characters were cast until after this process.”

Strasz’s cast will be led by Jack Downey as Edward II, James Lee as Gaveston and Danae Arteaga Hernandez as Isabel. Joining them will be Emma Scott as Young Mortimer; Effie Warboys, Princess Edie; Adam Kadow, Spenser; Cassi Roberts, Kent; Alan Sharp, Warwick, and James Tyler as Lancaster/Gurvey.

So too will be Stuart Lindsay as The Bishop; Elizabeth Painter, Margaret de Clare; Charlie Barrs, Maltravers; Harry Summers, Mortimer Senior; Tom Jennings, Lightborn; Emily Hansen, Pembroke, and Robyn Jankel, Philippa of Hainault.

Drawing on personal responses to the script and their own experiences, Strasz’s cast members bring a fresh and modern perspective to Marlowe’s 1592 work. “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, who was at the helm of York Mystery Plays productions in 2018 and 2022.

Cassi Roberts, left, back, 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

“Edward, his court and his child all try to protect themselves, but without uniting together they’re vulnerable. Edward is usually portrayed as a weak king, but we found this to be untrue:  Marlowe presents him as somebody who fights fiercely to protect his loved ones, despite his hatred of war and the devastation it brings.

When his lover, Gaveston, is brutally murdered, he finally becomes the king the medieval nobles want him to be – warmongering, merciless, elitist – and it’s to everybody’s cost.”

For James Lee (Gaveston), the play touches on contemporary issues of cancel culture, celebrity and social mobility, with his character destroyed for daring to reach above his station.

“I think Marlowe would get a real kick out of how relevant his characters are. In a world of tabloids and gossip, characters like Gaveston rise and fall every day,” he says. “Social mobility is championed and demonised. We’re never allowed to forget the roles we are supposed to play, regardless of our dreams.”

To aid accessibility for deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members, all performances will include closed captions.

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

The poster for York Shakespeare Project’s Edward II