Edward III is so rarely performed (or read) these days that any fan of Shakespearean Theatre should see it staged if the opportunity presents itself. However, after sitting through the Atlanta Shakespeare Company’s production of Edward III at The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, one understands why this play is not frequently performed. The fault lies not in the company performing the play (for the most part) but in the play itself. Edward III is a disjointed combination of a few truly excellent scenes (mainly those involving the King’s efforts to seduce the Countess of Salisbury) spread among rather boring scenes containing simple speeches and little character exposition. Most scholars agree that Shakespeare did not write the entire play (and some argue he did not write any of it) and seeing it performed may be the best evidence that Shakespeare collaborated with a lesser writer or that he’s simply human and even great writers have learning curves.
The most compelling scenes in the production involve the King’s attempts to woo the Countess of Salisbury. The Countess, played perfectly by Kati Grace Brown, is a strong, intelligent, and witty female character in the vein of Portia from The Merchant of Venice or Beatrice from Much Ado About Nothing. Brown’s delivery of her lines and her physical reactions to the King’s advances deftly illustrate the untenable position she is in when she is forced by the King, and her father, to choose between her duty to her husband and her duty to her King.
Drew Reeves does an adequate job as Edward III, but it is a tough role to play and his performance shows it. Reeves must constantly jump back and forth between a warrior king à la Henry V and a lovesick, lecherous, tyrant. Perhaps it is because I last saw Reeves play Richard III many years ago, but I think he does a better job with the latter as opposed to the former. David Sterritt does a good job as the Black Prince, but is hamstrung somewhat by his director. The Black Prince’s best lines in the play are given in Act IV in his talk with Lord Audley before the Battle of Poitiers. However, the director has the Prince and Audley delivering these lines upstage on a balcony far above the audience. Even in a closely quartered venue like the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse, a great speech can be robbed of its power when given from far away. I would have rather seen the Prince front and center to highlight the comparison between the honorable warrior prince and his not-so-honorable warrior father.
The costumes are meant to invoke the period in which the play is set, as is common for every show I’ve seen at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse. The stage was also well-lit throughout the performance, which is helpful given that it can often be difficult to keep track of the numerous different characters on the stage at one time. Where the production excels the most is the stage fighting scenes. There are several scenes where multiple actors are clashing with swords on stage at the same time, and the fighting does not look disorganized or silly as often occurs when staging large fight scenes. The production also featured a very brief musical interlude by a small band at the end of the first half of the show prior to intermission. This is the first production at the Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse where I have seen this type of band used and, while I appreciate and encourage more incorporation of music in these productions, the use of it here seemed odd and out of place. The director’s use of sound effects such as waves or swords clashing in the background also detracted for the actors’ performances. The Shakespeare Tavern Playhouse is a relatively small venue and perhaps because of it many of the actors’ lines were delivered quickly and quietly. This made it difficult at times to follow the dialogue and the background sound effects were distracting and only contributed to this difficulty.
All in all this was an uneven performance of a similarly uneven play. I have not had the opportunity to see any other productions of Edward III so I cannot say for sure whether the problems with this production are endemic to every other production of this play. Edward III clearly presents its director and actors with significant challenges which, when coupled with the general public’s unfamiliarity with the play, make it difficult for a company to hit a homerun with a production of this play. And while the Atlanta Shakespeare Company made a valiant effort in trying to bring this little-known and less appreciated Shakespearean work to the public, until a director can figure out how to solve many of this play’s problems, I would recommend leaving Edward III on the shelf.