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SCENE IT: The crown may not shimmer too bright for Edward II

Barbara Loots

 

The much-anticipated play, Die Fel Omstrede Kroon van Edward II en Gaveston, translated into Afrikaans from the original text of Belgium playwright Tom Lanoye by director Marthinus Basson, is currently onstage at the Baxter Theatre.

The crux of the production is easily captured by just sharing the full translated title of Lanoye’s play:


‘The fiercely contested crown and pitiable death of King Edward and his favourite squire, Gaveston, whose enchantment caused him to turn away from his queen and crown prince to the increasing anger of the gathered court and the otherwise ignorant common folk (freely based on Christopher Marlowe)’.


Lanoye takes inspiration from Marlowe’s Edward II in highlighting the underlying issues of history, power, and duty, while delving further into the essence of truth and tragedy in the unravelling of the love affair between King Edward II and his Gaveston. He declares Gaveston as the one who holds his heart to a different and more intimate degree than his wife, Queen Isabella, and hails this previously banned servant as equal to the King.


Lanoye takes Marlowe’s vision and gives it a wider intersectional context as he unpacks the abuse and distortion of personal choice versus public duty in the context of a historically perceived moral taboo. What should be so pure and beautiful – love – Lanoye reveals as a fragile, almost fleeting, concept that is lost amidst constant bickering, betrayal and suppressed pain. What follows is inevitable tragedy, especially when a fanatically contested crown draws out the jealous natures of all those who circle it so fervently, indiscriminate of age or sex.


I found Edwin van der Walt’s portayal of Edward II, especially at the beginning of the play, disruptive of the required rhythm and pacing that would do justice to Lanoye’s style, which is both formal and lyrical in bridging a gap between comforting classical phrasing and polarising expletive laden modernism. His placing of a hard vowel emphasis on every formal Afrikaans “U” in a sentence just did not relay any meaningful consideration of his character’s story. This resulted in his performance falling hard on the ear and coming across merely as over acting, which had me disassociating with his character rather than sympathising with his emotional struggles at the centre of the whole tragedy. In the moments when he stands in conversation with his Queen Isabella, played by Rolanda Marais, his performance does feel a bit more grounded, as if her presence brings a sense of purpose to the exchange that moves the story forward with a clearer vision.

Who did impress was Wilhelm van der Walt. He takes on an almost jester like persona with his role of The Young Mortimer. The mannerisms he incorporates in his character’s portrayal, especially when interacting with the Queen (who is gradually revealed as the lynchpin of everyone’s selfish endeavours) although heightened, sits so easily in the moment that it is a joy to behold. His purpose is clear, to serve the narrative, and it pays off in the form of a balanced performance.


Another effortlessly, well-considered performance is that of Beer Adriaanse. He steps into the shoes of Gaveston, a rather over-the-top personality that is utterly dramatic and impulsive. Yet somehow Adriaanse leans into the realisation of Gaveston’s divisive presence in such a way that makes everything he says play comfortably within the context of the play.


Both Wilhelm van der Walt and Adriaanse clearly understand the tempo and appreciate the accentuating beats upon which the play (as well as their characters within it) turns to take the tragedy forward, rather than simply revelling in a moment. As such, when they form part of the focal points in the play it is those that stand out as true highlights without them having to will it so. It is then no surprise that it is their performances that reveal the elements of humour that Lanoye weaves throughout his texts. Andre Roothman's portrayal of The Old Mortimer further adds the required sense of menace to what could otherwise so easily result in an overall fretful theatrical experience.


The set and lighting design is clearly conceived to give the feeling of people always observing, calculating their next move, like ghostly figures passing in the background. This stylistic choice seems to be a hint and homage to the original staging of Lanoye’s play that saw all actors on stage while moving backwards and forwards in between scenes through the use of chairs. In Basson’s version he has added to this another layer in the use of sliding mirrors as the actors move in and out of the focal points while remaining visible to some degree throughout. The vision does serve the drama of it all in an aesthetically pleasing manner.  

One aspect of the play that did trouble me as somewhat exploitative, especially given the current climate in our country where children and women are so often insensitively depicted and exposed, is the sparring scene between the underaged crown prince (played by Caleb Payne) and Gaveston, where the former is extremely scantily clothed. The text at this point sufficiently carries the meaning that the young prince is struggling with his sense of identity, it does not need him to stand physically exposed in his underwear, pointing a sword at Gaveston, whilst declaring he wishes he could be him. If something doesn’t take the story forward in a meaningful way, it could come across as pure exploitation.


Although I was not overly blown away by all elements of this production, there is something really intelligent in the way Lanoye unravels and reassembles Marlowe’s classic to highlight ever present and relevant issues of identity, pursuit and abuse of power, prejudice, longing and loss. In the end the play culminates in a moment that is the sum of a series of choices (some well-intentioned) so intertwined that no one can undo the gradually accrued damage –an all too frightening revelation that will leave much food for thought.


From a practical perspective, the production does its best to make an Afrikaans play generally accessible to a broader theatre audience using surtitles. A great initiative that may just serve its purpose better if the surtitles were dropped by half its height so that it does not require audience members to break sightlines with the action happening on stage too much (and I say this having sat fairly high up in the theatre where the impact of this gap was supposed to be minimal).


Die Fel Omstrede Kroon van Koning Edward II en Gaveston is onstage at the Baxter Theatre until 27 January 2024. Please note there is an age restriction of 16 years (for nudity and language). Tickets can be booked online through Webtickets.

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