According to critics, Edmund Ironside may have written by William Shakespeare, which is enough to justify the play’s presence in Mermaids’ Shakespeare Festival. Directed by Benji Bailey, known for his productions of Othello, As You Like it, Measure for Measure and more, Edmund shows the same style and base of knowledge that Bailey brings to everything he does. But in this most recent venture, he and his team faced a serious issue: a script that is not particularly good, or well suited to Bailey’s style.
It’s not the plot of Edmund Ironsides that I take issue with. The story is typical Renaissance affair: historical setting, noble characters facing off in a way that contrasts their personalities, and a slow build of tension leading to a final, dramatic encounter that ends in an unexpected way. There’s even a kind of proto-Iago (from Othello) in the character of Edricus (played by Jared Liebmiller). But the execution is lacking. Edricus, for instance, reveals his motivations in a monologue in one of the very first scenes, eliminating all mystery in the character, and telling, not showing, what drives him. While on the subject of monologues, there are a lot. Characters generally speak in blocks of text that seem to labor the point of the speech, and force the other actors to find variations on the theme of “respectful listening.” It made the staging static, and the pace slow, and while I could see efforts to alleviate these issues, it wasn’t always successful. Finally, characters tend to change their minds easily and quickly, in a way that felt unnatural. One huge change of heart in the final scene happens over the course of about one line, which jarred terribly.
In typical Bailey fashion, Edmund Ironsides opened up the wing of the Barron for extra seating. Costume ranged from modern to period, and set and props were done as simply as possible. The latter, in this production, was taken to the extreme, with only one real prop in the show. This simplified display focuses attention on the words, and allows the circumvention of some of the more elaborate technical requirements of the play. But here, it seemed that Bailey was fighting the script. A scene where two men have their hands and noses cut off was signified by the use of blood-red ribbon, but the mutilation didn’t manifest in the physicality of the actors, and so was unconvincing. The multiple sword fights carried out without physical swords, too, stretched suspension of disbelief. I think the play called for a bigger production. Besides providing options to deal with the above issues, a more elaborate staging could have used elements to set the scene of the various locations in a more visceral way.
In other ways, though, Ironsides excels. The entire cast is excellent, communicating the dense Renaissance text in a completely natural way. My favorite performance, though, came from Gareth Owen, whose physicality was a bizarre, extremely funny contrast to the character of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Owen didn’t just impress, he surprised, showing me something I didn’t know he was capable of. And the whole production showed the touch of experience and talent. Transitions were quick and clean, music choice complemented the moments in which it was employed, and the pace was as high as the script allowed.
Edmund Ironsides was about as good as a Barron production of Edmund Ironside could be. It’s just difficult to watch a production do battle with its own script. Where the writing was lacking, the team had to work that much harder. This fact makes this production a more qualified a success than some of Bailey’s other shows. Still, Edmund Ironsides serves as an excellent final feather in the cap of the director who has defined Shakespeare in St Andrews for years.