Poor Edward II. During his 20-year reign as one of Great Britain’s weakest monarchs, he lost the Scottish territories to Robert the Bruce, plunged his country into civil war, allowed a pair of upstart nobles to manage the kingdom, screwed up relationships with his in-laws on the French throne and became such a menace to the monarchy that eventually he was assassinated by order of his queen. As if that weren’t indignity enough, he now must suffer the continuing humiliation of being turned into a total buffoon by inept theater companies that persist in making him a martyr in a gay cause.
Like Christopher Marlowe (who wrote a far superior play about the hapless Edward), the young Bertolt Brecht was fascinated by a monarch who was so clueless about how to run a great nation that he handed over all the boring chores to unscrupulous courtiers with their own ambitious agendas. Like Marlowe (did we mention how much better his play is?), Brecht was intrigued by how weak or incompetent rulers tend to attract opportunistic “advisers” who think nothing of destroying the infrastructure of government in order to feather their political nests.
A program note to Gabriel Shanks’ production for Creative Mechanics acknowledges as much and even presses the point. Drawing comparisons with “the ideas of the Bush administration and Karl Rove’s stated desires for widespread cultural revolution,” the director’s note goes on to suggest that the suppression of minorities (“gays, Jews, interracial couples”) is intrinsic to any administration corrupted by political power.
Fair enough. But that’s not what’s on the stage, which has been turned into a camp approximation of an abattoir, with stained plastic sheeting draping the back and side walls and all kinds of chains and hooks hanging from exposed metal pipes. Since the gloomy lighting doesn’t change much from scene to scene, it’s difficult to know whether we are at court or in prison, although the jangling sound effects would indicate that the wolves of war are at the door.
In this dystopian future kingdom — which looks suspiciously like the backroom of an especially nasty S&M club — members of the royal court strut around in revealing if unattractive garb from no definable century, while a handful of bare-chested soldiers make do with combat boots and helmets worn with farmers overalls. If the disorganized look of the production isn’t disorienting enough, the arbitrary accents and sloppy diction of the performers further muddy the waters.
More to the point, the mangling of Brecht’s text (in Eric Bentley’s originally dry academic translation) ignores the broader political issues raised by Edward’s ineffectual leadership to focus almost entirely on the king’s monomaniacal attachment to Piers Gaveston, the beloved boy he tried to make his regent. In Willie LeVasseur’s goofy portrayal of the king, this is no gullible innocent who tragically puts his trust in perfidious advisers, but a slow-witted child whining for his pretty toy.
Instead of depicting Edward’s court as a war-free zone where civilized people are free to pursue the gentle delights of love and art, Shanks translates the spirit of the court into a kind of gang lust for sexual pleasure. And there’s no arguing that this licentiousness is a metaphor of some sort, because the notion can’t be supported by the vulgar staging and mannered perfs.
In the free-for-all company style, thesps pursue individual agendas as idiosyncratic as their costumes. Stentorian shouting and arm-waving are popular choices, and in this heated context both Avi Glickstein, as the king’s cowardly brother, and R.J. Foster, as a soldier-at-arms, deserve mention for their modulated tones and refreshing lack of hysterics.
But there’s no restraint when it comes to simulating sex acts or inflicting long, drawn-out physical punishment on the near-naked bodies of plump Edward and his pretty Gaveston — such scenes being the point, after all, of a production that, like every fraudulent friend in the king’s retinue, pretends to be something it manifestly is not.