Words from Ian McKellen
When Toby Robertson, artistic director of Prospect Theatre, decided to revive our Richard II, he thought to accompany it with his own production of Edward II, a play he had previously directed with Derek Jacobi and other Cambridge undergraduates in 1957. I recall he asked Alan Bates, who was busy elsewhere. I may even have suggested myself to play both kings. In 1969 it was still considered an outrageous play, after all, perhaps, the first drama ever written with a homosexual hero. Edward’s death with a red-hot poker thrust into his bowels had been discretely mimed behind a curtain when Harley Granville Barker played the eponymous role. We showed all, as it were, with the aid of a glowing torchlight and dim lighting.
The auditions for Gaveston, Edward’s lover, were conducted at Hampstead Theatre Club in London, where actors were asked to kiss me – I still recall the first softness of James Laurenson’s lips, which was a bonus throughout the run. At the Edinburgh Festival, the late Councillor John Kidd took offence to this show of male affection, particularly as it took place on a stage erected within the Assembly Hall of the Church of Scotland. The local watch committee sent along a couple of policeman who reported “no problem” and the fuss guaranteed full houses for the run and the subsequent tour in which Marlowe played in repertoire with Shakespeare. Dame Sybil Thorndyke attended a matinee and I asked her had she seen Granville Barker as Edward. “Ah no – that would be in the 1920s when I was touring Shakespeare across the USA with Ben Greet”. She said that they had played just one afternoon performance in Hollywood, then a settlement so small, that they moved on to play elsewhere the same evening.
The arc of Edward’s progression is as simple and strong as Marlowe’s language. He starts as a lovelorn youth. His passions are thwarted by his advisers, on whom he turns his anger and growing strength. By the climax of the play he is a full-blown tyrant. I emphasised all this by ageing through make-up and false beard. — Ian McKellen, May 2003
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