Arden of Faversham
Royal Shakespeare Company
Directed by Polly Findlay
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Friday 16th May 2014, 19.30
Joe Bannister – Lord Cheyne
Ian Bonar – Michael
Peter Bray – Lord Cheyne’s man
Elspeth Brodie – Susan
Colin Anthony Brown – Bradshaw
Keir Charles – Mosby
Geoffrey Freshwater – Franklin
Lizzie Hopley – Mrs Reede
Joan Iyiola – Watch
Tony Jayawardena – Shakebag
Christopher Middleton – Clarke
Ken Nwosu – Ferryman
Ian Redford – Arden
Jay Simpson – Black Will
Sharon Small – Alice Arden
The Swan Theatre was intended originally to focus on Shakespeare’s contemporaries, and the ‘Roaring Girls’ season is doing just that with four plays featuring strong female roles. Just before we left for this we got the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse winter brochure, and that’s going forShakespeare’s contemporaries too. Arden of Faversham was said to be partly at least by Shakespeare, though text analysis only found likely bits in the middle, basically the argument in scene 8. Marlowe and Kyd have also been suggested. I didn’t notice any memorable bits of language though pointing to the top rank of Elizabethans. The mystery is the two hired murderers, Black Will and Shakebag, who have to be references to Shakespeare, but whether named by his rivals or self-directed jokes we will never know. The play is in the RSC / Palgrave Macmillan edition of Shakespeare’s Collaborations.
Arden (Ian Redford), and Alice (Sharon Small)
It is a murder play, with a series of failed attempts by Alice Arden to have her husband murdered, and is was based on a real case in the 16th century. It is an early version of the bumbling murder story, as done in The Ladykillers, or Pulp Fiction or a dozen films. Alice (Sharon Small) is in league with her swaggering lover Mosby (Keith Charles). They pull in two people to help, each being promised the hand of Susan, Mosby’s sister in return. Michael (Ian Bonar) is an extremely slight fellow, while Clarke is a painter, who specializes in poisoning. Disaffected tenants bring in Greene, a gangster who finds real hit men. This production is set in contemporary Kent, but we assume it’s the mythical Essex of chavs. They don’t go for the accents particularly, or rather confine them to Mosby and the hit men. They play for laughs with marvelous effect. It’s hard to tell whether the original play was played straight, though after this it’s extremely hard to imagine.
‘Arden of Faversham’ is now the name of Arden’s business, like “Max Factor of Hollywood” or “Stowells of Chelsea.” In the original 1592 play, Arden makes his money from wool – the spread of sheep farming at the expense of ploughed fields was a Tudor issue. Sheep were profitable, but were not labour intensive, so as landowners switched, the poor farm workers lost their jobs (it’s also a theme in “Bring Up The Bodies” by Hilary Mantel). “Arden of Faversham” here is an importer of cheap Chinese novelties, a 2014 parallel in replacing local jobs. In fact as industrialization spreads in China, people are being dispossessed of their homes in the same way. And musicians and video producers are being dispossessed of their intellectual property by the internet (he added bitterly!)
Alice at the end, with large Fortune Cats behind
Arden of Faversham import gold plastic “Fortune” cats with waving arms and novelty Jesus figurines. For ten minutes before the play starts, factory workers in overalls are packing the novelties into ‘Arden of Faversham’ cartons with the pictorial logo. The backdrop of the play is a huge Venetian blind with a kitsch Chinese painting, like an idealized Chinese version of Thomas Kincade’s pictures, though it’s not quite as kitsch as Kincade. Alice’s dress picks up the Chinese theme and colors, though I’m told it’s summer 2014 high fashion. The slats of the blind can flip over to plain red when they’re out of doors. After the murder, the last scene has the Venetian blind lift to reveal ranks of much larger gold cats with waving arms.
Shakebag (Tony Jayawardena, left) and Black Will (Jay Simpson, right)
The comic inept hit men have great business, perhaps the greatest moment being when Shakebag inadvertently crowns Black Will with a huge crowbar, blood starts emerging from his forehead and he reels about. Though their attempts to assemble a sniper rifle to shoot Arden from above is a close competitor. Shakbag eventually opens the instruction leaflet to a huge laugh, and by the time the rifle is ready, Arden has walked out of sight. Jay Simpson as Black Will and the towering Tony Jayawardena as Shakebag look a great contrast. After the eventual murder by everyone, Shakebag sits on the side entrance near us, looks at those seated around him and says, ‘It’s what you do, innit?’
Physical casting is strong … everyone “looks the part.” Sharon Small is slim, while Arden is large and stocky (accented by his bright blue suit). He is clean shaven. Mosby is designer stubble. The make-up alone deserves a prize. Clarke, ever preparing noxious substances, has ever-increasing facial sores every time he appears (like the handyman in “The Brittass Empire” TV series). Black Will gets increasingly bloodstained. Susan, the sister, is a maid, continually cleaning up the mess the play creates, with her face getting redder and redder.
Susan (Elspeth Brodie): Mosby’s sister is forever cleaning up
There’s a lot of blood, as well as mud and snow and thick fog … all mentioned in the text. Stage blood is swashing around in quantity the last couple of years … Titus Andronicus and A View From The Bridge were the previous two plays we had seen, both awash with blood. Someone told me there is now a very washable fake blood. What did they use in the 16th and early 17th centuries? Real blood from the slaughterhouse? That would really screw up costumes, and they had no washing machines and tumble driers. They must have used much less, or bits of red cloth! In this play, Arden’s dead body is lifted in a cardboard box, hoisted way above the stage, then drips blood steadily over everything.
The ending of the play has Alice narrating what happened to each of the characters, basically how and where they were executed, which is just like the rolling closing credits of every “based on a true story” film. It is in the original text. It started here.
The violent arguments remind me of Eastenders, working well with the modern setting. It’s milked for comedy, and the whole production is fast-paced active fun. It’s just 1 hour 40 minutes with no interval, and it flies by. Four stars.
There should be pictures of Keir Charles as Mosby, but in all the online ones, he’s in a completely different costume.
MUSIC CREDIT NOTE
As we went out, “Up Where We Belong” blasts over the sound system, just the right song for the setting. Otherwise the music is live. There’s a beautiful unaccompanied version of Willow Weep For Me, sung by Joan Iyiola … no credit. Nor does Up Where We Belong get a credit.
No smoking at all. It wouldn’t be unexpected in the chavvy setting, but they avoid it, and you don’t notice any lack.