In 1969, Toby Robertson and his Prospect Theatre Company staged a ground-breaking production of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II at the Edinburgh Festival. It starred Ian McKellen as Edward, James Laurenson as Piers Gaveston and Diane Fletcher as Queen Isabella. On alternate nights, McKellen played Shakespeare’s Richard II, prompting contrasts and comparisons between two early history plays about the downfall of English monarchs.

‘A blond wig and a huge codpiece’

In an article for The Advocate (19 March 1996), McKellen recalls ‘shocking’ audiences as ‘Christopher Marlowe’s gay Edward II, in a blond wig and a huge codpiece’. Earlier productions had tended to be coy about suggestions of gay passion. But in this production, Michael Billington suggested that ‘homosexuality [was] handled with justifiable explicitness’ (The Times, 25 September 1969). There was a long kiss between Edward and Gaveston, which was echoed in the murder scene, when a ‘sinisterly affectionate’ Lightborne (played by Robert Eddison) gave Edward a tender kiss, before attacking him with a hot poker. Billington concluded that McKellen’s Edward was ‘an audacious, powerful and memorable performance’.

On his official website, McKellen says that:

In 1969 it was still considered an outrageous play, after all, perhaps, the first drama ever written with a homosexual hero … The local watch committee sent along a couple of policeman who reported ‘no problem’ and the fuss guaranteed full houses for the run and the subsequent tour.

The production toured Britain and abroad, and it was filmed and shown on BBC television in 1970, and in the USA in 1975 and 1977.