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Marlowe’s Edward II comes to Cambridge Arts Theatre

Rehearsals for Edward II at Cambridge Arts Theatre
Rehearsals for Edward II at Cambridge Arts Theatre

The Marlowe Society, Cambridge University’s leading drama society – responsible for launching the careers of Tom Hiddleston, Sir Ian McKellen, Tilda Swinton and Sir Derek Jacobi among others – is returning to Cambridge Arts Theatre after its recent well-received productions of Measure for Measure and Dr Faustus with Christopher Marlowe’s play, Edward II.

Rehearsals for Edward II at Cambridge Arts Theatre
Rehearsals for Edward II at Cambridge Arts Theatre

Dedicated to high-quality performances of Elizabethan verse and non-realist plays – including classics and plays rarely seen on the professional stage – the society is one of Cambridge’s oldest student drama groups.

It stages a production at Cambridge Arts Theatre each year with the help of a professional director and design team. This year, acclaimed German director Caroline Steinbeis has taken on the task.

Katurah Morish, in her third year at St John’s College reading education with drama and English, is playing Queen Isabella II, while Joe Sefton, in his second year studying education with English and drama at Comberton, takes on the title role of the man who was King of England from 1307 to 1327.

“I thought it was really interesting seeing how someone who isn’t a politician is being put into a position of complete power,” said Sefton. “There’s this man who has this massive job to do but doesn’t quite know how to do it.

“He’s also struggling to reconcile that with his trust in God, that it is his divine right [to be king] and also the fact that he’s married and has got a son, but there’s no love in his marriage at all.

“He doesn’t speak the language of the nobles and the politicians around him, so he surrounds himself with people of more humble origins – which he takes a lot of stick for. I see his struggle as centring around that.”

Morish added: “In terms of the play, Edward and Isabella are the King and Queen of England and you would think that that relationship would be central, as Isabella clearly does when she marries the soon-to-be king. However, really the hinge relationship of the play is the relationship between Edward and Piers Gaveston, who is, as Joe was touching on, a lower-class individual but Edward’s childhood friend and, definitely by this point you can assume, lover as well.

“For Isabella – as well as for the entire court – it’s a massive problem, but I think for Isabella there’s a great deal of humiliation and shame. She is a princess of France, the daughter of the King of France, and so to have failed at her queenly duties – her husband doesn’t have any affection for her and prefers this lower-class man – that’s obviously very difficult to deal with.

“So I think Isabella, unlike Edward, has total faith in her ability to be a queen of very high esteem but Edward doesn’t give her the opportunity to, which forces Isabella to consider other options in the court. She is incredibly loyal as a queen, until Edward pushes her too far.”

Morish continued: “It’s a fabulous play. No one in the play’s a good person, which is so much fun! I was also attracted to it because it’s Marlowe as opposed to Shakespeare, which means it’s a less well-known story.”

Sefton noted: “I guess there’s a certain reluctancy to do less well-known works, but then there’s also that excitement of exploring these really relevant themes. It wasn’t necessarily the play itself we were attracted to, though, it was more the whole project and the opportunity to work with Caroline.

“Something that’s completely new to me is being treated as a creative collaborator, rather than just a student actor – which is what we are. Caroline is always pushing us to go away and think about things, bring in our own research and devise our own interpretation of scenes.”

Steinbeis has been suitably impressed with the work ethic of the play’s two young stars.

“I can definitely say that they are incredibly hard-working and incredibly committed, playful and inventive, and that’s a joy,” she said.

A freelance theatre director, Steinbeis divides her time between London, Berlin and Munich.

“My background is predominantly in new writing, but increasingly now in classical texts, and I’m having an amazing time being here,” she said.

“I have been reading and researching around Marlowe for a little while now. My first encounter with Marlowe was when I was staff director at the National Theatre, working with James Macdonald on Dido, Queen of Carthage.

“At the time we were researching a lot around the man himself, who was a complete enigma, and most of what people know about him seems to have come from police records.

“He was a very provocative and complex figure and was always very front-footed about putting his controversial opinions forward.

“This made him at the time very progressive but even now, looking at his plays, it strikes me how incredibly modern they are.”

Wednesday, February 8 to Saturday, February 11. Tickets £18 to £28 (including a £3-per-ticket booking fee). Visit cambridgeartstheatre.com.

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