Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre is known for presenting thought – provoking, challenging, and sometimes highly experimental work.

This season is no exception.  So far, the company’s exciting offerings for 2016 have included critically – acclaimed productions of ‘The Glass Menagerie’, ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’ and ‘Every Brilliant Thing’.

Directed by Matthew Lutton, ‘Edward II’ may be their most controversial, risk – taking, and talked – about staging to date. Based on the Renaissance epic by Christopher Marlowe published mere months after his death in 1594, playwright, Anthony Weigh, has updated the language and reshaped the narrative for contemporary audiences. Think of combining two popular long – running television series, ‘Game of Thrones’ meets ‘Queer As Folk’, and that’s half the journey.

Overhauling a well – known play or book isn’t a new concept by any means.

For example, famous re-imaginings include Jane Austen’s novel, ‘Emma’ becoming Amy Heckerling’s hit teen comedy, ‘Clueless’ (1995), George Bernhard Shaw’s play, ‘Pygmalion’, the film, ‘She’s All That’ (1999), and Shakespeare’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ turned into the Broadway musical smash, ‘West Side Story’ (1957).  The list goes on.

However, it isn’t the first time ‘Edward II’ has had such radical treatment. The late British motion picture director, Derek Jarman, did just that in 1991.

Though keeping the old English text intact, he reduced the story to its essence, maintaining only the most relevant characters, and building on the critical romantic union between Edward II and his male companion, Piers Gaveston.  On top of which, Jarman used modern costumes, made clear comparisons to gay rights and the 1969 Stonewall Riots, as well as adding a touching musical pop interlude from Annie Lennox.

Criticisms of the Malthouse production have been quick to point out the show’s full – frontal male nudity and scenes of simulated gay sex in their assessments.  Overt but by no means shocking, ‘The Judas Kiss’ (penned by David Hare about the public demise of Oscar Wilde) captured similar attention over fifteen years ago.

Whether adding these elements are simply publicity stunts or key to the production’s overall power, must be judged in person. That the story has been given a modern perspective, makes their incorporation in ‘Edward II’ feel similar to iconic films on alternative relationships such as Andrew Haigh’s ‘Weekend’ (2011) or John Schlesinger’s ‘Sunday, Bloody Sunday’ (1971).

A political (and somewhat timely) reading may also be considered, where current events such as the recent hate crime – driven nightclub massacre in Orlando, Florida or the Australian Liberal Government’s plan to put same – sex marriage recognition to public vote, suggest how far LGBTQI acceptance has come but how far it still has to go.

In this production, the story is told by five actors only.  An overwhelming sense of sadness hangs in the air; each character is blocked from getting what they desire most.

Johnny Carr plays Ned, a man frustrated by his familial situation.  Heir to the royal throne, he has a voracious sexual appetite matched by bouts of violent rage.  Carr captures his character’s imprisoned desperation with feckless abandon.  That this uncouth leader is such a loose cannon, gives director, Lutton’s take on ‘Edward II’, particular relevance in today’s unhinged political climate.

As his working class lover, Piers, Paul Ashcroft is Ned’s physical and emotional match.  Lacking his partner’s privilege or position, Ashcroft instead gives the character streetwise cunning.  In order to survive, the character senses he is onto a good thing and therefore, has to play by his wits to keep it. Later, blinded by his status, what makes Piers’ destiny all the more shocking, is an inability to foresee his personal fate.

As Sib, Belinda McClory hovers in the shadows with feline menace. Brought into the fold to bear Ned a male successor, her character lives on constant edge.  Perhaps the player with the clearest understanding of her place, McClory also demonstrates the greatest dramatic arc. From spurned wife to hysterical survivor, McClory brings touches of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth and Tennessee Williams’ Violet Venable to the table.

Marco Chiappi’s Mortimer, as advisor to the late Edward I, is perhaps the character with most to lose. Sharing a clandestine affair with Sib, he is horrified to see how much influence Piers has over the new king’s decision – making. Chiappi brings regal elegance to the story, particularly in his extended monologue about being evicted from the palace, and the humiliation of surviving alone.

Two young actors, Julian Mineo and Nicholas Ross, alternate between playing Sib and Ned’s son.  On the evening I saw the show with Ross in the role, of particular note was the archery lesson Mortimer gives the boy, and the special teacher – student understanding they shared.  When Ned’s son makes a life – changing decision for Mortimer at the show’s close, this earlier moment carries even greater poignancy.

As the theatre does not have a traditional proscenium arch, filling the vast performance space in the 520 seat multi – tiered Merlyn is a massive challenge.

With no actual set as such, designer, Marg Horwell, generates spectacle through a series of oversized props and tables, sometimes captured on small cameras and projected onto a vast white rear wall. In defining each character, her streamlined costuming alludes to both past and present fashion trends as well.

Mood lighting by Paul Jackson bathes the play at significant colour – coded moments first in red, then blue, and finally purple. Otherwise, stark white lighting keeps the characters in full view for the audience.

Kelly Ryall’s composition and sound is deliberately strong.  For example, his blasts of classically – influenced pipe organ music pervade the auditorium during Ned’s coronation, highlighting the sharp significance of this turning point.

Tia Clark and her assistant, Matilda Woodroofe, maintained fluid stage management throughout the show’s ninety – minute single act running time.

This staging will appeal especially to audiences looking for a fresh take on a classic story. With traditional story – telling and stagecraft broken down and rebuilt before our eyes, be prepared to experience the unexpected.

‘Edward II’ plays until August 21.

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