February 20, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Arden of Faversham @ The Emlyn Williams Theatre, Theatr Clwyd

This production marked a long overdue return to Theatr Clwyd for me, a theatre I haven’t visited since it was my local as a schoolboy. It’s perhaps a shame that it took a rare production of an apocryphal play to drag me back, but hopefully I’ll be able to remedy this with future visits. Terry Hands’ new production of Arden of Faversham was a breath of fresh air, a revival of a neglected play that offered a timely alternative to the usual canon of early modern drama.

The production was performed on a wide apron stage, with almost no set (a couple of benches and a table) and a series of sliding screens that varied the entrances and exits for each scene. Elizabethan costumes evoked a sense of place and period, but beyond that this was a stripped-down production that placed the entire focus on its performers. This was an essential approach for a production that conceptualised the play as black comedy, emphasising the ludicrous nature of the repeated failed murder attempts while allowing us to mock the more severe evil-doers.

Hedydd Dylan’s Alice was the key hook to the play’s tone, a combination of hysterically funny and troublingly amoral. By exaggerating her fluctuating moods and performed emotional states, Dylan turned Alice into a comic villainess, revelling in her own trick-playing. Her tone of insincerity, notably as she complained of her abuse to Greene, was transparent, and her quick changes to scorn for Arden or lust for Mosby were instant. Alice, in Dylan’s performance, was not so much a psychologically-believable character as a series of carefully-pitched performances within performances that drove the action and spun webs about the other characters. Shakebag lusted after her, whetting his knife in excitement; Black Will shivered as she ran her hand under his shirt; Franklin and Bradshaw shuffled in embarrassment at her open sexuality; and Arden saw nothing but the loving wife. There was, too, something regal about her: she domineered over her servants and suitors, holding court within her limited domestic sphere, and her appearance in a deep-green travelling robe served to emphasise this aspect of her character. As she unravelled, Lady Macbeth-like, and broke up the dinner party at which her dead husband’s friends had gathered, the plot itself collapsed around her, with servants chaotically running across the stage and the simple Susan reduced to tears as Alice asked for counsel. Alice’s performances were as essential to the murder plot as the actress’s was to Hands’s production, both taking centre-stage and providing the gravitational hook on which all else depended.

As might be expected, however, Brendan Charleson’s Black Will and Dyfrig Morris’s Shakebag stole the show. Will was a highwayman with feathered cap and black cloak, while the enormous Morris played Shakebag as a lumbering thug. The actors trod a fine line between terror and buffoonery; Will’s initial intimidation of Bradshaw came with a sense of genuine threat, while their undignified tussle later (flapping at each other with their arms) was parted by Wayne Cater’s tiny Greene whose anger jerked both of them into submission. As a double-act, they worked extremely well. In one memorable scene, as Franklin and Arden discussed dreams and precedents at the front of the stage, the two performed an entire dumbshow of preparation, loading, taking up firing positions and stumbling over each other at the back of the stage, their exaggerated tip-toeing leaving the audience in hysterics.

Will was additionally played as something of a celebrity: a notable "inconsistency" in the text is that Will does not know Michael, while Michael instantly recognises him a few lines later. The awe in Michael’s voice as he gasped and cried "Black Will?!" demonstrated that, in this world, Will was a celebrity: something that I believe is entirely justified both by the text, and by the reappearance of Black Will in other plays of the period (The True Tragedy of Richard III; When You See Me, You Know Me), which suggest to me that the character had a certain amount of theatrical currency that exceeds the world of this play.

Michael, played by Steven Meo, became an emotional heart for the play. His relationship with Alice was one of devotion, and she humoured him, allowing him to loll on a table before her and discuss his private life. With Arden, by contrast, he was beaten over the head and had his love letter torn up before his eyes. Michael talked a great deal, and his love seemed sincere, yet his execution of matters rendered him unsympathetically pathetic: easily bested or reduced to cowardice at every turn, and more than eager to betray his master. In a lovely piece of staging, Michael went to sleep in Arden’s London house in a blanket on-stage after the discovery of the unlocked doors. The subsequent scene, of Will and Shakebag attempting to gain access to the house, was played off-stage, their voices carrying through the doors to the sleeping Michael, who awaked and listened in fear to the threats of violence against him. Panicked, holding pillows over his ears and pleading for the murderers to leave, he was at once amusing and pitiful, a man out of his depth in everything he tried.

Other comic scenes had mixed results. The appearance of Shakebag with a couple of weeds on his head didn’t have quite the impact that the man fallen into a ditch might have had, but was more than made up for in the same scene by Simon Holland Roberts’s performance as the Ferryman, in an apparent recreation of the weird old man from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Flamboyantly creepy and holding every syllable for all it was worth, it was the most entertaining part of the performance. The first aborted murder took place around a book-cart, with a large lid that knocked Will out in a lovely piece of stage kerfuffle. Stephen Marcella’s Clarke was also very amusing; a little painter with beard, glasses and a stained working-shift, who leered over a disgusted Susan in hopes of having her as his bride.

The comic tone was perhaps carried too far into the actual climactic murder scene. Even as Arden and Mosby sat playing at tables, an unnecessary comic scene was continued with Will crawling along the floor while Michael stood astride him in an attempt to cover what was going on. I actually felt, with the background music and a serious build-up indicating a change in tone, that to play this section straight might have had more impact, giving the actual murder a gravity to contrast with the levity that had passed before. The problem was that the audience, after over an hour of amusement, continued to laugh through much of what continued to happen, especially as a spluttering Arden revived from apparent death only to be stabbed again by Alice. It wasn’t disastrous by any means, but served to diminish the significance of the murder event.

The comic performances were counterbalanced by Ifan Hyw Dafydd and Daniel Llewellyn-Williams as Alice’s rival lovers, Arden and Mosby. Dafydd, a deep-voiced and impressively articulate actor (remembering, too, that I’m not used to hearing Elizabethan verse in heavy Welsh accents, the clarity all round was very good), gave a commanding performance that stressed the character’s intractable sense of his own authority and right. His ownership of the land, and expectation of deference from his servants, meant that he brooked no argument and dismissed easily the accusations of Dick Reede (a serious Grahame Fox). This was a man concerned, first and foremost, with property and propriety, and the talk of Alice’s infidelity clearly gnawed at him. It was only after the chaotic battle between Arden, Franklin, Mosby and the murderers that, believing Alice’s assertions that their provocation was in jest, he finally entered into a terminal bout of self-doubt, kneeling on the floor and almost weeping in apology. It was this, prompting his subsequent reconciliation with Mosby and invitation to his fatal dinner table, that here was the direct cause of his apparently divine good luck giving out: manipulated by Alice into a position of vulnerability, it was only in a place of absolute trust that he could be killed.

Llewellyn-Williams, meanwhile, played the rakish cad to good effect, with open shirt and lounging walk. In terms of development, his proximity to Alice rendered him somewhat passive, and his contribution to the murder scene – whacking Arden over the head with an iron – had a comical effect that was immediately undone by Shakebag’s ominous, powerful and bloody stabbing of the man. Lying on the floor, Arden appeared dead until a spasm prompted Alice to run over, sit astride him and slit his throat. Mosby’s relative inactivity was symptomatic of a character who talked, railed and challenged others, but was effectively impotent and a little pathetic. References to his earlier profession as botcher were treated with petulance, but he had the power to do nothing but rant, and was repeatedly bested by both Arden and Franklin.

It was John Cording’s Franklin who provided the real gravity in this production, however. Authoritative in voice and stance, Franklin shadowed Arden at all times, and provided the necessary voice of caution and reason. He confronted both Alice and Mosby at frequent intervals, making open his distaste for and suspicion of them, and his choric function at the end of certain scenes only served to underline this sense of authority. His dedication to Arden, however, rendered him almost entirely devoid of his own personality, he serving as much as an aspect of Arden as an individual in his own right, and his slow arrival to Arden’s dinner table, greeted in silence by the conspirators, rather emphasised his loneliness when bereft of his companion.

As a white drape was laid out for the final uncovering of Arden’s body, the play drew to its close with a tableau centred around the image of bloody red on the white canvas. Will and Shakebag both passed across the front of the stage to report on their flights, while Alice, Mosby, Michael, Susan and Bradshaw gathered around the corpse. The injustice of the nervy Bradshaw’s end was particularly apparent in these final moments, and his appeal to Alice was treated with the carelessness of inevitability rather than any malice. All that mattered was the image of Alice cradling Arden’s corpse, summing up the entire action in a final moment of distress. It was Franklin, at last, who drew us away from this, turning in a spotlight to address the audience and pronounce the fates of the conspirators, with apology for the unembellished truth of what had been told. In his final moment of choric authority, the production resituated the black comedy within a sobering reminder of the story’s basis in reality. A moral conclusion to a production which recognised the messy mixture of humour and horror that, all too often, characterises real life.

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