August 13, 2014, by Peter Kirwan

Arden of Faversham (Royal Shakespeare Company) @ The Swan, Stratford-upon-Avon

In a year in which MacDonald P. Jackson’s new book has fairly definitively established the case for the place of Arden of Faversham in the Shakespeare canon, it’s rather refreshing to see a production of the play at the RSC that leans in no way upon Shakespeare, attributing the play to ‘Anonymous’ (much as Terry Hands’s production did four years ago). This production relied on a much more potent, universal authority to establish its cultural value – cats.

Ian Redford’s Arden sat, morose and staring into space, behind a table while factory workers moved about the stage wrapping and packing hundreds of chintzy golden Japanese ‘lucky cat’ toys, their left arms waving in perpetual motion. Ian Bonar’s Michael, Arden’s foreman, organised the troops, while Elspeth Brodie’s Susan (with cartoonish blushing cheeks) cleaned neurotically and frantically around the edges. Huge boxes of the toys were hoisted out of sight on pulleys lowered from the ceiling, the boxes all marked with the smiling face of Alice Arden – Arden’s trophy wife.

Relocated from a domestic setting to a lower-end business world, where magnates pushing tat in grubby factories mingled with low-level gangsters and petty councillors, Polly Findlay’s production became an indictment of mindless capitalist enterprise at the expense of human feeling. Dick Reede was changed into a woman (Lizzie Hopley) constantly petitioning Arden, who kept walking away from her with no time to listen to her complaints. On her cursing of him, Geoffrey Freshwater’s Franklin called her a witch and the two left, laughing at her words. While Arden’s treatment of Alice was not held up as unusually cruel, it was clear that he represented a masculinist system which depended on the women in his world being housewives, cleaners and dependants while he and his male friends pursued financial gain. In a wonderful coup de theatre, the tacky shutters that stood upstage raised as Arden’s body lay on stage, revealing enormous copies of the lucky cats waving their arms in a slow, mocking farewell to their producer.

This sombre yet hysterical image was typical of a production that worked largely with broad brushstrokes of social satire. Characters were caricatures: Greene (Joe Bannister, understudying brilliantly) was a plucky likely lad, aiming to move himself up a little in the world and looking like a walking advert for Adidas; Colin Anthony Brown’s Bradshaw was a nervy honest tradesman clad head to toe in cycling gear; Christopher Middleton’s Clarke was a terrifying serial killer, peering from behind thick glasses, displaying large red blotches around his neck, and dressed in bomber jacket and plastic gloves. Clarke was wonderfully grotesque, caressing Susan and holding her in odd places (upper arm, the side of her face) while Susan pleaded with Mosby to be let go. While never veering into Little Britain territory, the production relied on recognisable stereotypes, populating its world with an Eastenders cast of charlatans and wannabes.

At the centre of this world was Alice Arden, played by Sharon Small, paired with Keir Charles’s Mosby. Small’s accent took a while to settle – perhaps deliberately, it seemed to be a mix of domestic English and traces of American drawl, though by the end of the production her natural Scots was more evident. This may have been simply an odd effect of voice and lines, though I like to imagine that she was offering a deliberate Madonna parody, given Charles’s wonderfully caricatured Guy Ritchie-esque performance of a Cockney geezer wearing trainers, drainpipe trousers, jacket with rolled-up sleeves and a gold (gold!) pistol. Alice wore her blonde hair in a beehive and strode around the stage in a killer dress on deadly stilettos. The two lovers fawned over one another, squealing at each other’s attempts at poetry and throwing themselves into each other’s arms whenever their employees’ backs were turned. There was little attempt at nuance here, Alice instead pantomiming it as she veered between performed hysteria and dark asides. Charles frustratingly aimed for a higher register to carry his wailing throughout, and was far better when he maintained a more natural lower voice to work out his plans.

The play was cut to an hour and 45 minutes without interval, involving some pruning. The physical comedy of the multiple murder attempts was led by Jay Simpson as a swaggering, threatening Black Will and the hulking Tony Jayawardena as a slow, taciturn Shakebag. The first attempt was beautiful: rather than retain the long set-up with a shopkeeper opening up his stall, Will simply accidentally insulted Shakebag who reflexively brought down his crowbar heavily on Will’s head, leaving him bloodied. Arden, the perennial Roadrunner, walked obliviously past as the men struggled. The night-time murder scene was rather thrown away by simply having the voices of Will and Shakebag rant in absolute darkness, but the roadside assassination was brilliant, with the would-be murderers wrestling over a complex assault rifle in the galleries while Arden, Franklin and Lord Cheyne chatted on the streets. And, of course, Shakebag was absolutely covered in mud after falling into the toxic ditch through which a mackintoshed man had led Arden moments earlier.

The running theme throughout the comic segments was of bluster. Will, Mosby and Greene all shared a concern with their own self-image, wanting to be seen as the powerful one and enjoying their moments of confidence and leadership. At a less threatening level, this was played out among the lower characters. Michael wrote long letters and wrapped up pitiful wind-up toys to send to Susan, and Clarke reacted scornfully to his supplanting by Michael. Image was everything, and the various forces jostled for position. Throughout all, though, it was women who were being held in subordination. Susan was seen onstage constantly cleaning up the various messes caused by the men, while Mrs Reede moved about with dignity and continued frustration as the men ignored her.

The focus on particular aspects meant that many of the play’s strengths were lost. Franklin’s role was much diminished, and passages of simple verse – Arden’s dream, Alice and Mosby’s quarrel – were rather overshadowed by the more inventive and caricatured decisions elsewhere. Findlay’s direction showed that the play can absolutely handle being played as an out-and-out comedy, but this came inevitably at the expense of the more nuanced miniature arcs within the play.

As the production reached its climax (skipping the fake duel), the music became more urgent and the murderers all came together. The meal, as with all the domestic scenes, took place in the factory, and the preparations were hilarious (particularly as Will crawled forward, half-between and half-behind Michael’s legs). The murder was brutal, with Arden being stabbed repeatedly and violently by Mosby, Shakebag and finally Alice, who screamed and flailed at the writhing body. Yet rather than switch the tone to one of seriousness (which tends to be my preference for this play), the production instead ramped up the comedy even further. Arden was manhandled into a crate (the logo ‘Buy it – love it!’ accompanying Alice’s face bearing even more resonance now) and pulleyed up to the ceiling, where its underside split and began dripping blood while Mosby and Alice attempted to distract their guests. Susan, simply and obliviously, attempted to put strips of paper subtly over the patches of blood, and Mosby caught drops in a champagne flute. The music that played as the audience left later – Love Lifts Us Up Where We Belong – presumably nodded at this moment.

Yet, finally, the production found its emotional heart. As snow began falling from the heavens, Arden’s body was left lying in the cold as Alice looked upon it. Susan silently closed the ring box that Michael offered her. Joan Iyiola sang a beautiful lament from the galleries. And the production’s final moments saw the accused murderers sitting facing away from one another, speaking to their relative guilt or innocence in monotone, before Alice stood to give the Epilogue. To refer to the ‘truth’ of the story after such a comedic modern updating felt odd, if not in unusually bad taste, and added nothing to the production other than to end it on a far less powerful note, but the closing images of waving cats and bodies in the snow continued to resonate.

Posted in Theatre review