Theater Review: Arden of Faversham, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

05/16/2014

Last night I attended the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Arden of Faversham, by Anonymous. It is thought that Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlowe, or William Shakespeare, or some combination of them, wrote the play, which was published in 1592. The RSC includes it in their recently published volume, Shakespeare and Others: Collaborative Plays (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Some believe that Shakespeare wrote at least one scene; others think it was the work of an amateur; in any case, it’s a rousing play, in this RSC production, and deserves to be seen.

Arden of Faversham is a “domestic tragedy;” what we might call today “true crime.” It’s the story of the murder of Thomas Arden, who lived in the town of Faversham, and who discovers that his wife, Alice, is having an affair with Mosby, a lowly steward. Alice, together with Mosby, plots to have Thomas killed, so she can be free to be with her lover.

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Alice asks several people to kill her husband, and, after a botched attempt to poison him, asks Greene, who Arden had dispossessed, to help her. He hires the notorious criminals Black Will and Shakebag.


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Arden is eventually killed, and his body left outdoors in a snowstorm, but is found, and the killers quickly unmasked by some quick-thinking forensic investigators.

I fear me he was murdered in this house
And carried to the fields; for from that place,
Backwards and forwards, may you see
The print of many feet within the snow.
And look about this chamber where we are,
And you shall find part of his guiltless blood;
For in his slip-shoe did I find some rushes,
Which argueth he was murdered in this room.

The killers are sentenced, and the play ends, with an epilogue, spoken by Alice (in the original text, Franklin speaks it), recounting their fate.

It’s a pretty simple plot, but what makes the play a delight to watch is the wacky slapstick way it’s presented. Set in the present, the characters are all quirky, with odd costumes, and speak their lines as if in a sit-com. Sharon Small is delightful as Alice Arden, with her vampish attitude, blond-haired and stiletto-heeled, drifting back and forth between a serious lover and Lucille Ball. Keir Charles gives a wonderfully smarmy Mosby, and the two bungling criminals – Black Will and Shakebag, played by Jay Simpson and Tony Jayawardena – are hilarious.

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Textually, this isn’t a great play, but what saves it is a wonderful production, with plenty of action, fast changes, and quick pacing. It’s the shortest play I’ve seen at the RSC yet; only 1:40, with no intermission. (In a TV interview, Sharon Small said that the play reads about 2:30, so there were substantial cuts.) And that time flew by. There was laughter, blood, snow, smoke and beer, and the actors seemed to be having as good a time as the audience. Director Polly Findlay, in an interview on the RSC website, says that she sees it as like “a Coen brothers movie set in the 1590s.” That sums it up well. The production is gaudy, brash and kitschy, and that’s why it works.

It’s a play that doesn’t take itself seriously, and just lets you have a good time. And that might be why I didn’t like the other play I’ve seen recently as part of this series at the Swan Theatre, The Roaring Girl. It seemed like the director was trying to make that play into art, but it simply wasn’t good enough. The actors were torn between acting and Acting, and it came through. Polly Findlay took the opposite tack, and made this play fun.

I had a wonderful time at this play, and I hope to see it again this season. The intimacy of the small Swan Theatre made it an immersive experience. The only thing that detracted from it was a lack of air conditioning in the theater, which is uncommon at the RSC. It was a very warm night, and, from the beginning, it was uncomfortable. If you do see the play, and sit in the front row, don’t wear your best clothes.

Here’s an interview with Sharon Small, where she discusses her part: