Saturday, 10 May 2014

Theatre review: Arden of Faversham

The RSC's Swan has been rededicated to its original purpose of staging work by Shakespeare's contemporaries, and Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman programmes the first season in this capacity, Roaring Girls, which focuses on plays with prominent roles for women - in particular, women who go against the grain of society's expectations. Arden of Faversham, whose author remains unknown, is based on the true story of the titular landowner murdered by his wife. In Polly Findlay's modern-dress production, Arden (Ian Redford) becomes the owner of a factory manufacturing Japanese lucky cats, who suspects his wife Alice (Sharon Small) of having an affair with Mosby (Keir Charles.) He's right, but they're also plotting to murder him. Ironically it's Arden's own wealth that will enable Alice to bribe a succession of ne'er-do-wells to help get rid of her husband.

Alice and Mosby favour a scattershot approach, variously enlisting her servant Michael (Ian Bonar,) friendly neighbourhood poisoner Clarke (Christopher Middleton,) and Greene (Tom Padley,) a local with a grudge against Arden, who in turn hires bumbling hit-men Black Will (Jay Simpson) and Shakebag (Tony Jayawardena.) Their many assassination attempts on the road fail, and it's in his own home that both Arden and the conspirators come a cropper.

The final 15 minutes of Arden of Faversham make for a beautifully put together sequence of black comedy, and lyrically intense visuals from designer Merle Hensel. But this all comes after 90 incredibly flat minutes as the plot is set up and the assassins repeatedly fail. Findlay and her cast have put a lot of effort into giving the play a heightened sense of reality that should in theory yield comic results. The trouble is the play gives them absolutely nothing back. It's not got any real insight into its characters beyond "we like money" so it never achieves a tragic depth; neither does it actually have the comic potential the company's trying to bring out.

Findlay does try to add some depth, particularly with the character of Mosby's sister Susan (Elspeth Brodie.) An unwilling part of the plot, she's promised against her will as a wife to both Michael and Clarke if they carry out the murder, and all she gets as a result of being treated as a commodity is executed along with the rest. If they had anything to work with the creatives might have a good show here, but no amount of enthusiasm can disguise a play swamped by even the smaller RSC stage.

Arden of Faversham is booking in repertory until the 2nd of October at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes straight through.

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