Edinburgh Fringe 2010
That the death in 1593 of the poet, playwright and possible spy
Christopher Marlowe (Shakespeare’s almost exact contemporary) reportedly in a drunken brawl was most probably an assassination is a good subject for a play. This treatment crams a lot of research and exposition into one bare hour, but the young company handle the material well, especially Timothy Bond’s charismatic Kit.
Born in 1564 a couple of months before William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe was established as England’s top playwright before he was 30. His Tamburlaine had opened the door to great blank verse drama, Edward II set the mould for history plays,
The Jew of Malta for comedies, The Massacre at Paris a contemporary thriller and The Tragical History of Dr Faustus was a uniquely powerful masterpiece which is still regularly performed, there being 2 productions of it at this year’s fringe. ‘Kit’ Marlowe was also closely involved with some dark political forces. His long absences from Cambridge University together with his profligate spending during his later years there, and his arrest and then release for counterfeiting coins, supposedly to aid Catholic rebels in Holland, are strong indications that he was involved in spy work, probably at the behest of the privy council and in the employ of Sir Francis Walsingham.
On May 30th 1593, a few days after his arrest and then release on charges of atheism, Kit Marlowe spent the day drinking in Deptford with three men who were also connected to Walsingham’s spy network. It was later recorded that an argument erupted over the bill, and in the ensuing struggle Marlowe was stabbed in his eye with his own knife and instantly died.
The circumstances of Marlowe’s death are shrouded in political intrigue and mystery and have been the subject of much speculation over the centuries. In Westminster Abbey there is a window commemorating Marlowe which has a question mark after the date of his death, sponsored by those who believe the "great reckoning in a little room" in Deptford was just a cover story and that Marlowe actually escaped abroad from where he sent home his works to be published and performed under the pseudonym which first appeared in print a few days after his death – William Shakespeare.Sarah Goddard’s play The Demise of Christopher Marlowe does not delve into the murky waters of the Shakespeare authorship question, but sticks fairly closely to the story of political intrigue and personal betrayals concerning Marlowe’s relationships with his room-mate Thomas Kyd and his patron Thomas Walsingham, cousin to state spymaster Francis who orchestrated the Babington plot which ensnared and doomed Mary Queen of Scots.
Performed by a cast of seven recent drama school graduates, some of them obviously too young for their roles, wearing sumptuously heavy but occasionally ill-fitting hired Elizabethan style costumes, the production comes across as a good student production of an interesting work by a promising new writer. On the basis of this, Goddard’s other play at this year’s Festival, Three of Hearts, billed as "a verse play about forbidden love" should also be very well worth a visit.The boyishly handsome Timothy Bond does a very good job as the charming, reckless Marlowe, and is ably supported by the rest of the cast, particularly Zack Chaykin who movingly portrays his bosom friend, Thomas Kyd, his hands and mind broken by the torture used to extract his confession and accusation against Kit.
Harry Palmer does his best to play Walsingham as a stooping old man, Geraldine Barry Murphy struggles a little to make Queen Elizabeth seem more than a mouthpiece, while Sean Turner as Poley, the main architect of Kit’s demise in this take on the story, is suitably dislikable. Kieran O’Rourke as Skeres and Frank Osborne as the assassin Frizer play their smaller parts well.At the obligatory one Edinburgh hour long, the play sometimes creaks at the need to cram in so much exposition.
I wondered, had Sarah Goddard world enough and time, whether she could have written more life into the characters and more drama into the revelation of the story. The tragedy of Marlowe’s death merits a full length treatment, but this enjoyable and informative production is well worth a visit and bodes well for the future of this new company.