When you tell people you’re putting on a production of any play, one of the most immediate and common responses is likely to be along the lines of “Oh right, what made you choose that play?” It’s an even more common question when the play you’ve chosen is a rarely performed piece by a playwright who is known to many simply as the man who was Not-Shakespeare. If you’re going to do Marlowe, at some stage of the proceedings, someone will force you to think about how he compares with Shakespeare and all the ways in which they’re different. In many respects, this is fair enough, and comparisons, when they are not arbitrary, can be extremely helpful on the way to a better understanding of the subject in hand. However, lurking behind the question of “Why Marlowe?” you get the feeling there lies the attitude that it would have been more worth your while staging one of Shakespeare’s plays. It is more than likely that, in the academy and the theatre, Shakespeare will always outrank Marlowe. But then again it is probably fair to say that Shakespeare will always outrank pretty much everybody. So when asked the question “Why Marlowe?” (which I was, on quite a regular basis, through the weeks of preparation, rehearsal and performance), this Shakespeare-shaped shadow cast over Marlowe starts to look like a reason in itself for staging his plays. It was far from being the only reason, but it rapidly and perhaps inevitably became an important one, that, since he’d been consigned to the ranks of “Shakespeare’s contemporaries” rather than “playwright in his own right”, I wanted to give Marlowe some of the attention and stage-time I felt he deserved. It is telling that, of our audience members, only a very select few had seen Edward II on stage before and I don’t doubt that for many it will remain the only production they will ever see.
Nevertheless, while neglect may point you in the direction of a particular play or writer, it certainly doesn’t make a piece interesting in itself. I owe my acquaintance with Edward II to a production I saw at the Globe Theatre while I was still at school. At the time, I remember being struck by the extraordinary cruelty of the play and its characters and it has subsequently been my impression that, in all his plays, Marlowe was interested in the capacity human beings have to do terrible things to each other. In watching that particular production, I was also unable to ignore the sheer number of characters that cross Marlowe’s stage. As Marlowe wrote it, Edward II has thirty seven named characters, before you get to the extra miscellaneous lords, ladies, messengers, soldiers, attendants and monks (our production had thirty three characters, all told). One of the most challenging and appealing things that drew me to this play is that, as well as the dominant characters who remain in our memory long after leaving the theatre, Edward II is filled with small roles, characters who appear for only a couple of scenes or in some cases for just a few lines before disappearing entirely from the stage. For so much of the play, we are allowed only snippets of stories that we will never see again. For the audience, these may not be the stories that impress themselves most deeply on the memory but, for the actors, playing characters who only appear briefly and about whom we know so little can be extremely rewarding. Such roles demand that the actors employ their own creativity to make sense of these characters and make them live for the audience. With so little to go on, the text grants the actors the space to make use of their own imagination and intellect to create something that is their own. In this respect, Marlowe is only one player in a large ensemble of creators, all on an equal footing.
Indeed, this is not only true of the minor roles. In theatre generally, but especially in Marlowe’s, the written text constitutes only a fraction of what goes into making the performance. As the text has come down to us, Edward II only contains a very few indications as to stage business, although some of them, admittedly, are among the most unforgettable stage-directions you are ever likely to read. For the most part, however, all we really have are the words spoken; that is, the text provides us only with the verbal life of the play. It is the purpose and responsibility of the company to create the physical, visual and aural life. In this respect, theatre is always essentially a collaborative enterprise. It is no coincidence that the ensemble was placed at the centre of this production. Beyond the five-man strong production team, we had thirteen actors and two musicians who came together to work on the project. As is the case in any production, all members of the company will bring with them their own unique imagination and experience. It seems absurd to me not to make use of that variety and wealth of knowledge that accompanies the performers into the rehearsal room. Why bring fifteen people together to work on something if you’re not going to use what they can bring to the project? Rehearsals were therefore designed to draw out the ideas of the performers themselves. They were often left to work on a passage by themselves, without directorial supervision, to allow them the space to explore their own responses. Moreover, a lot of time was spent, early on in the rehearsal period, building the ensemble. When performers know and understand each other better it not only makes them better at performing with each one another but, perhaps more importantly, through understanding and being comfortable with each other, it makes the rehearsal room a safe space in which everyone is invited and able to contribute ideas. Most importantly, this safe space allows everyone to make mistakes. A large part of rehearsing involves trying things that will not work, exploring options that will eventually be rejected. It is not only vital that the performers know what the other options feel like so that they fully understand the choices they make in performance but it is amazing what can emerge from making mistakes. In rehearsal, the performers must be allowed to experiment and try things, free from the urgency and pressure of finding the “right” option.
In approaching this project, my particular interest was in Marlowe’s metre and the ways in which rhythm underpins the whole of his theatre. Starting from this shared basis of rhythm, I wanted to use music to build a physical and aural life for the play that would be just as powerful as the verbal life. Working with jazz musicians from the beginning, the actors were encouraged in rehearsals to discover physical and musical rhythms that could help tell the stories of the play. Through their work with music, the actors were pushed to find new ways of using their bodies to articulate emotions and stories. In performance, music was used almost continuously, running parallel with Marlowe’s verse. Given another week to work on the production, it would have been wonderful to push these physical and aural ideas even further to see whether it would have been possible to tell the stories without using any words at all but only the rhythms of movement and sound. We may have discovered, of course, that it was not possible or that it was not the right choice for this particular project but it is a shame that we did not get the chance to explore the option before deciding against it.