Wednesday 13 February 2019

From play to opera: Marlowe's Edward II and Benjamin & Crimp's Lessons in Love & Violence

Marlowe: Edward II - Tom Stuart & Beru Tessema in rehearsal - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Photo Marc Brenner)
Marlowe: Edward II - Tom Stuart & Beru Tessema in rehearsal - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Photo Marc Brenner)
What is the difference between an opera and a play (apart from the obvious). This thought came to me as we caught Christopher Marlowe's Edward II, the second performance of the run at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe, on 8 February 2019, having seen George Benjamin and Martin Crimp's opera inspired by the play, Lessons in Love and Violence, at the Royal Opera House in 2018 [see my review].

At the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on Friday, Nick Bagnall's production featured Tom Stuart as King Edward II, Beru Tessema as Piers Gaveston and Katie West as Queen Isabella, part of a ten-person ensemble, with music by Bill Barclay.

Crimp's libretto for Benjamin's opera takes the essentials of its plot from Marlowe's play, but with any sense of historical detail removed. Both works have a moral lesson at their heart, that Edward II concentrates on his love for Gaveston at the expense of ruling his country is the fundamental issue, it is Edward's character which is important rather than the specifics of his same-sex relationship.

There are major differences between the opera and the play of course, but I found myself (somewhat unsuccessfully, I must admit) trying a thought experiment, imagine Marlowe's play performed in Katie Mitchell's modish modern production as used in the opera, and Benjamin's opera performed in the traditional  Jacobean style of the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence - Stéphane Degout and Gyula Orendt - Royal Opera (© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey)
Benjamin: Lessons in Love and Violence - Stéphane Degout & Gyula Orendt
Royal Opera (© 2018 ROH. Photograph by Stephen Cummiskey)

One of the differences is intimacy. For its impact, Benjamin's opera relies on large gestures in a big theatre with a large orchestra to support it. The play we saw at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse was very intimate, most of the audience members were close to the cast, the smallest gesture told.

Another big difference is the focus on the title role that the play gives us. For all the strong supporting roles, this is a play about Edward II, and his long speeches very much define the work, whereas the opera is much more an ensemble piece. For all baritone Stephane Degout's fine performance as the King in Lessons of Love and Violence this was not a solo performance but one balanced by the other cast members.

And of course, in an opera the stuff between the words is important, Benjamin's use of the orchestra adds an extra quality which very much defined the opera.

Not that Edward II was without music, there were settings of Latin prayers for the full ensemble singing, so the play started with them singing part of the requiem for the funeral of Edward I. A powerful and imaginative statement. Elsewhere, the music was more timbral and illustrative, using four players performing on a remarkable and varied group of instruments, percussion, dulcimer, clarinet, recorder, cello, kora, flutes, bagpipe, and nyati, and with these Barclay achieved some striking timbres and textures which punctuated the text.

Ultimately any performance draws you in and makes you forget that other versions might exists. You could perhaps imagine a production of Edward II which drew on similar inspirations to those articulated by Benjamin, Crimp and Mitchell in the opera. But at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Nick Bagnall's edit of the play concentrated on the intimate, prizing the private and the personal, the intimate communication with the audience.

The acting ensemble was very much mixed when it came to race and gender, proving that neither matters when it come to acting, it is the ensemble created that is important. Annette Badland, Polly Frame and Sanchia McCormack were impressive in that we scarcely noticed their gender in their portrayals of the six male characters that they played.

Edward II, Piers Gaveston and Spenser Junior were played by young actors (Tom Stuart, Beru Tessema and Colin Ryan) which gave us an essential feeling of youth in a way which is difficult in opera as voices can mature later, meaning opera must operate on the principal of suspension of disbelief or, as in Katie Mitchell's production of Lessons in Love and Violence, accept that characters are more mature, giving another slant to the two works.

With 17 named characters, Edward II is far more diffuse than Lessons in Love and Violence, that is the way that Jacobean plays were written. Nick Bagnall used doubling creatively. I was especially taken with having Lightborn, Edward II's executioner, played by Beru Tessema who had played Gaveston, and Edward II's son played by Colin Ryan who had played Spenser Junior, who took a place in Edward II's affections after Gaveston's death.

In his play, Marlowe does not quite achieve the transfiguration of Edward II in the final scene in the way that Shakespeare does with Richard II (a play clearly influenced by Edward II). But Tom Stuart really did elicit our sympathy, making a a spoiled brat into a tragic figure. Beru Tessema was a sympathetic Gaveston, and lent an unnerving quality to Lightborn.

Marlowe: Edward II - in rehearsal - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Photo Marc Brenner)
Marlowe: Edward II - in rehearsal - Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Photo Marc Brenner)
Edward II is a fascinating play, a striking essay in Jacobean power politics and remarkable in its use of same-sex relationships. Tom Stuart, who played Edward II, has written a play After Edward written in response to Edward II, which premieres at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse on 21 May. See website.

Marlowe's Edward II is at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 20 April 2019, see website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A romantic at heart: I chat to violinist Sarah Chang about her forthcoming Cadogan Hall recital - interview
  • A jolly good show: Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Welsh National Opera  (★★) - opera review
  • From the Pens of Women: Kitty Whately on her forthcoming Wigmore Hall recital & the challenges of bringing music by women composers to the fore - interview
  • Black composers series 1974-1978 - CD review
  • In the hell of a small town: Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova at the Royal Opera (★★) - opera review
  • Through an Eastern filter: Nathan Davis' striking dance-opera Hagoromo (★★½) - CD review
  • A very modern spectacle: Ponchielli's La Gioconda at La Monnaie  in Brussels (★★) - opera review
  • Engaging first thoughts: A reconstruction of Mozart and De Ponte's initial ideas for Cosi fan tutte (★★) - CD review
  • Strong, muscular yet tender and very direct: Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Christ alongside Colm Tóibín's The Testament of Mary (★★★★) - concert review
  • Semele and beyond: Harry Bickett talks about the English Concert's latest Handel opera tour  - my interview
  • Of arms and a woman: Blondel late medieval wind music inspired by Christine de Pisan (★★½) - CD review
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