Edward II notes
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Music John McCabe
Choreographer David Bintley
Design Peter J. Davidson
Costume Jasper Conran
Lighting Peter Mumford
David Bintley's Edward II is a far cry from the idea of ballet as all pretty tutus and pink ballet shoes. 'It has seemed to break people's preconceptions of ballet over the years', he muses. 'It is a very extreme piece, in that it is so very far away from what you'd expect ballet to be both in the choice of subject and also in the dogged manner in which I pursue this ghastly story. But I don't think it's too strong - I've never had a particularly negative thing said to me about it.'
The elements of the subject that he talks of are principally a number of brutal acts of violence and degredation. 'The whole thing is about violence and power,' David explains, 'and everybody is ghastly, because it was a ghastly period. These were the stakes they played for: beheadings, castration, disembowelling.'
Thankfully not all of these acts make it onto the stage, but there are still some potential shocks. 'The thing that always causes a stir in the audience,' David reveals, 'is the bit where Edward's in prison and the jailer pees on him. But it's not there gratuitously. Historically, during his downfall, Edward II was put down a hole in Berkley castle. There they chucked all the ordure of the castle down on him - which would have included all their waste - hoping that that would kill him. So having one of them pee on him is actually quite tame. It's nasty but it's not gratuitous: I did it deliberately to refer to that point in the historical story.'
While it was possible to exercise discretion with some of the elements of the story, David saw one gruesome act in particular as more of a directorial challenge, and one he was keen to take on.
'I was always going to put the poker act in', he says. [Edward II was reportedly put to death by being burnt with a poker in a gruesome manner that would leave no marks on the body]. 'There are alternate theories about Edward's death, saying he died in other ways or he escaped or whatever, but it doesn't matter. Nobody is ever going to be able to prove or disprove it one way or the other, and what matters is the story.'
So how did he decide on how to portray the death scene on stage? 'I remember seeing the play for the first time', he says. 'What you as an audience member are thinking is '"how are they going to do that scene?" But when it arrived I thought it was incredibly distasteful. It was a small chamber presentation, so there was the proximity of it, and the actor was upside down with all his goods hanging out squealing like a pig, and it was horrible, because you were there; it was like being in that cell.
'And I always thought "well how can you do it? How do you actually physically do that scene?" I wanted to make something that was at one and the same time absolutely horrific, absolutely real, but much more grandiose, much more spectacular.'
David's solution was to focus more on this anticipation of the event, the staging of the act rather than the physical violence itself. He explains: 'I came to the idea of him literally climbing up the iron bars of the wall of his cell, standing up facing the audience with it also looking a little bit like a crucifixion. This isn't intended as a blasphemy, but more a bit of a dual meaning, which gives the culmination of the scene more power. We don't take his pants off or anything, I didn't want to shock in that way.'
This conscious aim of avoiding obvious shock tactics was consistent throughout the work. 'Another thing that I deliberately, absolutely was never going to do, was a gay kiss', he states firmly, 'because I knew that that would be the cheapest, tawdriest, and above all easiest thing to do. There are other things I always thought that you could do that would be far cleverer and far more touching, and I do things that I think are a lot more sexual, a lot more knowing, but at the same time not so obvious.'
Having enjoyed so much success with the work, it is perhaps surprising that David expresses no desire to revisit the same themes and ideas again, 'because you couldn't be more violent'. He does say that it was a learning experience however.
'Originally I thought it might chase the older people out,' he remembers. 'But it didn't at all. I got wonderful letters from people and it was really rather good for my education, because I realised back then that people don't just want hearts and flowers when they turn 50 or 60, they don't, and ballets like Edward II are not just for 'young people'. And likewise, although it often has an x-rating for caution, my son saw it when he was about ten or eleven and he loved it.
'After all this time I've never had one letter from anyone who's been upset or offended by the work – who has seen it! I've had a few from people who haven't seen it saying we shouldn't be doing this sort of thing, but I can't think of anything in the piece that will be upsetting if you sit and watch it.'
Overall then, this is very much a work that will shatter your ideas of ballet, but not one that does so for its own sake, or for cheap thrills. Be prepared for a tale that features horrible acts committed by horrible people, but which does so in order to show the effects that the rise and fall of these few powerful individuals had on entire nations. See for yourself this autumn.
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