Not Your Parents’ Edward II: An Interview with Matthew Gray and Edward II
By Molly Ketcheson
Matthew Gray, writer and director of the upcoming Mermaid’s play, Edward II, is quite possibly more passionate about writing than anyone I’ve ever met. Yes, I knew before speaking to him that his writing was noteworthy – his Fresher’s Drama Festival show last year, Life is Shit, sizzled with energy, and the bits of Edward II that I’ve seen had me captivated by their melodic twists. So, I expected he would have insightful answers to my questions, maybe even share some of his writing secrets, but I did not expect the energy with which he’d do so. Matthew answered each question in detail and at a quicker pace than my pen could follow. He was not rambling by any means, rather he just had so much to say.
The first thing I asked of him was to give me an elevator pitch for his upcoming play, Edward II. “People have put it in comparison to other things. I’ve had Baz Lurhmann does Game of Thrones, or Rocky Horror meets The Favourite.” But really, it’s a play with three distinct layers: it’s for a 21st-century audience, adapted from an Elizabethan text, about Medieval events. “Probably Baz Lurhmann does Game of Thrones sounds more exciting.”
The story is one most history students will be familiar with: when Edward II takes the throne after Edward I’s death, he immediately rejects his father’s military laws and brings back his lover, Piers Gaveston, from exile. But many members of the English court don’t like Gaveston and don’t trust Edward because of him. As tensions rise and deaths pile up, Edward’s regime ends in a coup and his tragic death. Edward II follows this story all the way through, but re-energizes it, adding more real history, which Matthew says is “far more dramatically exciting,” especially since it’s juxtaposed with contemporary language, costumes, and dance.
Matthew first read Marlowe’s text when he was sixteen, but instead of making notes on themes or analysing the language, he was already thinking like a writer. “I was writing things like ‘this doesn’t make sense, his motivations here, why wouldn’t he do this instead?’”
So when he decided to adapt the play for a modern audience, he fixed these issues, developing characters, making it more historically accurate, adding more women where Marlowe had only one, and taking a different approach to the LGBT issues in the text. “The idea of a ‘them against us’ mentality [with LGBT issues in the play] doesn’t seem very useful or relevant currently… there’s a far more nuanced look at sexuality and gender, and it’s far more about… how we can take a step further in theatre to make things a bit bolder, a bit queerer.”
In the end, of Matthew’s finished ninety-three page script, with only about one page of Marlowe’s text. “I hadn’t intended to rewrite the whole thing,” he said, laughing. He was only going to make some cuts and add in some more intimate, character-driven scenes. “As it went on, I began to feel that that wasn’t necessarily working… I felt like it threw the balance off [just changing some things].” He’s also played with Modern English, keeping the more public court scenes in an older language, whereas these new, emotional moments slip into the modern tongue. Even the lines he’s kept from Marlowe have been reworked, often given to others or put into a new context to better serve the characters. “I was very consciously writing something that would hopefully be interesting to talk about [in its written form] as well as performed.” What is created is an innovative, eclectic take on the classic tale. This is not your parents’ Edward II.
When I asked about his writing process, how he got the words perfect to create the timbre of the show, he said that he tries not to edit his work much, if at all. “I plan a scene beforehand, knowing the characters, where they’re going to be, what’s going to happen, where they’re going to go, and then the dialogue itself [I] try to speak naturally. I feel if you edit things it tends to take out flow.” Longer monologues, of course, require more editing, but most of the work is completely natural. When you have such a strong connection with the text, as Matthew does, the words can come out perfect the first time around.
One such moment that relied on this naturalist writing was a speech by a drag queen character that Matthew has introduced, who is played by Sebastian Taylor. When Matthew was writing this speech, there had recently been a series of homophobic hate crimes in the news that fuelled the anger in the scene. “Seeing something like that in the news, and so much of it, so rapidly, it feels like very quickly anything could be taken away from you.” However, he didn’t want to directly take those stories from the victims, so instead this scene became more of a collaboration between him and the actor. “With Seb being an actual performing drag queen, they’ve been able to inject it with their humour and a bit more flare. It’s not necessarily been fixed.”
This kind of collaboration is, of course, present in every scene to an extent. This is a play, not a novel, so everything changes when put in the hands of the actors. When asked about how he approached directing a show he’d written, he said that though he’d written some of it with directing in mind, largely at the start of the process, there was a lot he knew he’d be flexible on. One such thing is costume, which he had ideas about, but nothing concrete until he worked with other people who helped cement the whimsical outfits you’ll see on stage, which ranges from Elizabethan wear to leopard print corsets. “It takes place outside of time; it works because there’s a 21st-century audience, so people can be wearing clothing from a range of different times.”
The show is full of these atypical elements, such as the inclusion of modern dance and unnatural stage directions, which are used to revolutionise key scenes, such as deaths. “In a way, it seems irreverent. These are serious things, but you’re not taking them seriously, so in a way that heightens the horror, and makes it more palatable to an audience.” The way he talks about these scenes, about this fantastical world he’s built, is captivating, his vision so clear you cannot help but believe in it too.
The final thing I asked Matthew was to tell me why someone should see Edward II. “It’s fun. It’s bonkers. Hopefully, people will laugh and enjoy it and engage with a period of history or a play they might not know much about. And… it’s a unique production because of the script and the characters and the context. There are important things being discussed… I want people to go away thinking about the ideas of gender, sexuality and performance.” Then he quickly added, “I don’t want to come across as being preachy though!”
If you’re not convinced by those three things, I’ve got one more reason you should see the show: the passion that is palpable in every word.
Edward II is on at the StAge on November 4th and 5th. You can reserve tickets by emailing email@example.com.