Events such as International Connections each summer at the National Theatre, and the National Student Drama Festival each Easter in Scarborough, regularly show youth and student theatre to be an area of riches, originality, imagination and skill. In contrast, it can get immensely frustrating to see so much "post-student" theatre passing around the same meagre handful of ideas, whether with new work or existing texts.
These actors, directors, etc., recently out of training, want to get themselves noticed and generate impressive-looking items for their CVs. The motives are understandable, but in practice all too often they just mark themselves out, paradoxically, as more members of the legion of the undistinguished.
Director Chris Kell has chosen Marlowe's Edward II with which to launch his Revival Theatre Company. He weaves a sung Latin mass through the proceedings (and has even cast a counter-tenor as the Archbishop of Canterbury), but this is mere trimming. His principal ideas are to emphasise the sexual nature of the king's relationship with his favourite, Gaveston (as if it were ever in doubt) and the resulting tensions between the vacillating king and the rebellious nobles, which leads them ultimately to unseat him. In Kell's scheme, sex seems the only motive; the earls' horror that Gaveston "hardly [is] a gentleman by birth" is passed over entirely.
On the first score, then, we're invited to pretend that it's daring to have Edward (clad in lavender, yet!) and Gaveston snogging and pawing at each other, and Jon Millington's Gaveston doubling every entendre within range. On the second, there is simply no pretence at duplicity, tact or any kind of restraint when the main characters deliver lines to each other. The worst offender is Daniel Settatree's king, who tries to use his stubbly handsomeness to eke out his limited performance range, but the rest of the youngish cast aren't far behind him (ho ho).
The combined result is to populate the stage with a clutch of highly strung queens engaged in one long, shrill, collective hissy fit. The sole honourable exception is Stuart Mackie as Edward's son, later Edward III, who generates power through silence and discipline rather than decibels and adolescent petulance shading over into hysteria.
The post-student atmosphere isn't helped by the venue. The Cockpit Theatre is a flexible space, and Kell makes considerable use of its raised gantries at either side of the stage, but it looks and feels exactly like what it is: a purpose-built modern college theatre, a learning space. It unconsciously emphasises that Revival is driven by recent graduates, keen to make their mark but in fact showing how little advanced they are from their days of study, how far they have to go and how indistinguishable they still are from hordes of other such companies.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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