June 23, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Arden of Faversham (Em–Lou Productions) @ The Rose Theatre Bankside

The programme for this year’s second Arden of Faversham, at the Rose in Bankside, advertises it as "England’s Oldest Tragic Comedy" (as opposed to tragicomedy, which of course the play is emphatically not). While tragic comedy sounds like something Bottom might put on, it’s not a bad description of a play which is unavoidably funny for much of its first three quarters. In the intimate setting of the Rose, Peter Darney’s production thoroughly embraced the possibilities of the comic action to a degree I wouldn’t have expected, without sacrificing the power and shock of the play’s ultimately tragic conclusion.

Embracing a modern variant on original practices, the production gestured towards Elizabethan environments while rooting the play in a 21st century framework. Thus, characters wore ruffs and breeches that effectively placed them within Elizabethan social and economic frameworks, but also denim and fishnet stockings that pushed the actions towards a more contemporary interpretation of sexual dynamics and violence. Incidental music began with Elizabethan instruments that were then overlaid with electric guitar and beats, while Black Will (Blackwill (sic) in the programme) and Shakebag adlibbed with a variety of swearing and have-a-go bravado. The end result was an oddly prescient slice-of-life drama, a dynamic and clear story of everyday sex and violence.

The confident handling of text extended to some remarkably intelligent sections of rewriting that made one necessity – giving the actress playing Susan something to do – into a great virtue. Nichole Bird doubled as the Prentice; and her letting down of the window was delayed, with Will’s "I am almost killed" being a scared reaction to the Prentice suddenly appearing behind him. Will’s "Zounds, I am tame enough already" was played as a sexual come-on, which the tiny actress responded to by thumping him hard in the face, then kicking him in the crotch as he fell across Shakebag. Thus, as Arden and Franklin crossed the stage in some confusion, Shakebag clutched fruitlessly at his legs, unable to move as Will yelled in pain atop him. A far different effect was created by turning the Sailor who appears with Dick Reede into his wife: here, as Reede (Elliot Hadley-Johnson) knelt before Arden, the presence of his innocent wife at his side highlighted Arden’s lack of pity in this instance, a simple but powerful way of rendering the "victim" far more morally ambivalent.

Arden (Mark Carlisle) was a confident figure, veering towards arrogant. Clearly in love with his (much younger) wife, his constant caressing of Rachel Dale’s Alice was more than a little creepy, particularly considering her instinctive distaste for the physical contact, which Dale cleverly allowed herself to betray when taken off guard before resuming her "game face". There was an interesting parallel here with Clarke’s (Richard Woolnough) lust for Susan: again, the much older painter’s drooling over the diminutive Bird was disturbing, reminding us that this is primarily a play about transactions in which women are treated as just one more desirable commodity. The somewhat desperate state of both women was neatly brought out as, following the murder, the two were at one point left alone to clear up after the mens’ mass departure.

Arden’s arrogance particularly manifested itself in his unsympathetic treatment of Reede, and more so in his complete contempt for Mosby. In their first encounter, he held a knife to Mosby’s throat and Mosby’s own sword to the philanderer’s crotch, threatening to "prick" him at the point where he most threatened Arden. The fact that both Arden and Franklin were considerably older than Mosby helped to stress the class conflict that underlies Arden’s jealousy: Mosby is not only a sexual threat, but as a former tailor turned steward, he represents the "new man" undermining traditional feudal systems. His attempt to usurp Arden’s place is as much about money and power as it is about sex, and it was certainly the former that drove Jonathan Woolf’s Mosby. I wasn’t persuaded by Woolf’s performance, which seriously underplayed the character, to a fault; he seemed apathetic about the entire endeavour, and Woolf’s soft, unvaried voice became monotonous. While the pretensions to gentlemanly status might justify this calm approach, there was no sense of the risk, danger or passion that we are told drives the entire enterprise. It was a relief, by the quarrel scene, to finally hear some passion in his voice, but it was too little too late, and Dale’s Alice did most of the work of creating a tension in this scene. The aspects of Mosby’s character that did work in this performance, however, were the more Machiavellian ones revealed in soliloquy when he plans to kill Alice himself. Here, the coolness worked; elsewhere, it left Mosby’s scenes lacking bite.

Dale’s Alice, on the other hand, was stunning throughout. Always the centre of attention (in a lurid costume designed to keep all eyes on her), Dale imagined the impressive feat of juggling multiple plots and dynamics simultaneously, manipulating her co-conspirators and victims with equal skill. She found an enthusiasm in the ideas of murder which, interestingly, Dale restrained from boiling over into comic-book evil. There was a liberated aspect to her amorality, a glee which came not from bloodlust but from her own ability to control events – stressed further as she distributed money liberally among her hired hands. Her impulsive behaviour and free emotions contrasted beautifully with Mosby, and led to some completely unpredictable actions, such as casting Arden’s broth-bowl into the watery pit of the Rose itself. In this reading, it was not so much Arden’s body that pulled her up short, although Dale plunged the depths of grief as she fell across her bloodied husband. Rather, it was the sound of approaching forces that sent her into panic as she tried – and failed – to re-establish control over her home.

The other parts of the serious plot were neatly realised. Francis Adams was an extremely effective Franklin, Arden’s ever-present yes-man and close companion, playing on their homosocial bond subtly without making too much of it. While often played as a near-puritanical straight man, Adams began in a far more jovial vein and was active in backing Arden up in his conflicts and dealings, bolstering Arden’s own formidable presence. It was only gradually that Adams became detached from the action, staying behind Arden to voice his concerns to the audience, and finally delivering the sober epilogue. Spencer Cowan, meanwhile, played Michael relatively straight, bringing out the pathos of his love for Susan. While there were still comic moments – notably a very silly fight with Clarke, and some good comic screaming – Cowan interestingly brought out the character’s fear and weakness, both justifying his ultimate fate while also rendering more bathetic his closing lines to Susan. Joseph Glynn’s Greene was servicable, a simple madman, but strangely internalised all of his rage in his initial meeting with Alice, going for clenched fists and jaw rather than building up to a climax, thus diminishing him at the one moment where he most importantly establishes the motives that fuel him through the rest of the play.

It wasn’t the serious moments of this play that stood out, however, but the comedy as governed by Dan Gingell’s Will and Simon Pennicott’s Shakebag. This double act – Russell Brand and a Bash Street Kid – was completely hysterical, making black farce out of the middle section of the play and engaging the audience entirely. Gingell’s Will, the much taller of the pair, was luxurious and lounging, yet with a cowardly streak that manifested itself in yelping and gangly getaways. Pennicott, on the other hand, was stocky and unrestrained, gurning in constant anticipation of violent pleasure and swaggering threateningly. He was the stronger fighter by some distance, as evidenced by his victory in the two’s fight, culminating in Will being dragged across the stage by his hair and unceremoniously stamped on.

The comedy worked so well because of the anarchic element it introduced. Whether in the contemporary adlibs that really fleshed out the characters, or their initial introduction which saw them steal bags at knifepoint from audience members, one was never quite sure what they were going to do next. They clambered among the audience in order to find the best vantage point from which to shoot Arden and Franklin, shoving spectators mercilessly out of the way; they sprawled across the front row to hide from Lord Cheiny (Shakebag complained about the smell of my feet, thanks); they were barely restrained by Will’s thief’s honour, instead being dependent on Greene to, for example, save Michael. The two also indulged in a bit of metatheatrical comedy, most amusingly as they tried to force the doors to Arden’s house – a black curtain. Less effective was the fog scene: recognising the limitations of the Rose, although using a smoke machine, the two entered holding out their arms like sleepwalkers/zombies, making fun of the thin mist which was imagined to be a pea-souper. Shakebag’s line "what horses are those that passed" was then shouted offstage towards the stage manager, in order to cue a "missed" sound effect. This scene was entertaining enough, but felt so planned that it was out of keeping with the anarchic possibility of their other scenes, and thus less effective.

Will and Shakebag remained amusing until Arden’s death scene, which was played straight apart from Alice covering Arden’s ears while she hissed to Will. The murder itself was brutal and played with copious stage blood, as Arden was forced onto the table and stabbed brutally, several times by the wild Alice. Will and Shakebag made their exits straightaway, now far more sinister as they marched out, and their short "epitaph" scenes were omitted, allowing this exit to mark the simultaneous ending of the comic atmosphere. From hereon in it was messy and disorganised as Arden’s body was first stuffed under the table then dragged offstage. Surprisingly, it was Michael and Susan I found myself drawn most to at this point, the two standing together shaking as the murder was discovered.

In this transition from comedy to tragedy lay the production’s greatest strength: an expert balancing of tone and clarity that allowed the repetitive action to be both extremely entertaining and thrillingly chaotic, yet tied off the comedy neatly as the far more serious chaos of murder took over. As the characters unravelled, most powerfully Dale’s Alice, so did the significance of events become apparent. Franklin’s sober conclusion, with its final wrapping up (although, of course, with one loose end, the fate of Clarke) brought order to a sprawling mess of a murder plot that Darney’s production handled with precision, style and wit.

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