Arden of Faversham, Swan Stratford, 2 May 2014
The stage was full of action as the audience entered. Arden sat at a desk while his overalled workers packed the novelties imported by his firm into boxes which were then carried aloft by a hoist. The back of the set consisted of a large painting of an English village which was being dusted by someone whom we would later discover was Susan, Alice Arden’s maid.
This anonymous Elizabethan tragedy was played through in 1h 50m without an interval.
After a brief expository conversation between Franklin (Geoffrey Freshwater) and Arden (Ian Redford) about his wife’s infidelity, we met Alice (Sharon Small), the object of his suspicions (1). She was nervously comic and this set tone for the rest of the performance.
The production’s basic problem was that by starting in this comic vein and assiduously maintaining it, the tragic side of the play was neglected so that its conclusion felt extraneous. The mood was kept as jolly as possible for as long as possible for fear of confronting the audience with unpalatable ‘difficult’ drama.
But this clashed with the ending in which Arden is brutally and repeatedly stabbed and the guilty parties, along with one innocent person, are executed.
Characterising Alice as a sitcom-style frustrated housewife did not sit well with her subsequent burning at the stake.
The jokiness of Alice’s explanation of her calling out Mosby’s name in her sleep was on one level patently funny, but served as a pretext to render the entire play as comedy. There was very little indication that this was the “lamentable and true tragedy” of Arden of Faversham.
The characterisation of the other main cast followed this line.
Michael (Ian Bonar), the forlorn lover of Susan (Elspeth Brodie), had been recruited by Alice to kill Arden. But his ominous “I’ll see he shall not live above a week” did not feel like a credible threat.
Alice’s lover Mosby (Keir Charles) was a wide boy in a purple suit. This sub-comical persona positioned him as a figure of fun.
Clarke the painter (Christopher Middleton) was a ridiculous figure whose dull clothes, glasses and red facial disfigurement made him into a laughable misfit rather than a sinister conspirator. His lust for Susan, who was lurking all the while under the table cleaning and overhearing their conversations, was played as ludicrous. Clarke gave Alice and Mosby poison to put in Arden’s breakfast.
Alice’s “See where my husband comes” was funny and was soon followed by the suspicious Arden disarming Mosby by taking, not a sword, but a handgun that was stuffed down the back of his trousers.
Alice brought Arden the poisoned breakfast and she and Mosby sat and watched him eat it out of the corner of their eyes. Arden noticed there was something odd about the food and put it aside. Alice threw the bowl to the ground accusing her husband of suspecting her of poisoning him, a charge she tried to refute by taking a spoon and trying to eat it up herself.
Greene (Tom Padley), one of the tenant’s dispossessed by Arden’s land deal, wore an Adidas tracksuit that identified him as low class. His grudge against Arden made it easy for Alice to get him to procure her husband’s murder.
Mosby criticised Alice’s involvement of too many people in their plans. Susan was produced for Clarke to paw at. Alice’s comment that Clarke had made Susan blush was underlined by the way her cheeks were painted with red blushes making her look almost like a doll. There was also something doll-like about the way she was escorted away, crying uncomfortably.
Greene and Bradshaw the goldsmith (Colin Anthony Brown) met two lowlifes Black Will (Jay Simpson) and Shakebag (Tony Jayawardena) in the street (2). Bradshaw, who was wearing cycling clothes faintly reminiscent of a city commuter, did not want to be associated with Black Will and gestured to Greene that they should continue without stopping to talk to them.
But Black Will helped Bradshaw out by identifying the villain who had sold him the stolen gold plate, which because it had been found in Bradshaw’s possession had led to him being wrongly accused of the theft. Bradshaw’s long description of the villain was cut because of its doublet references.
However, Black Will held back the line to Shakebag about spending the money from the sale of the stolen goods until after Bradshaw had left so that it seemed that he had deceived him. Greene had given Bradshaw a letter to deliver to Alice, which would later be used to prove his complicity in the murder plot.
Greene paid the murderers to kill Arden and they enthusiastically took up the assignment.
Michael, now facing a challenge for Susan’s affections from Greene, read out a pleading letter to her which together with an Arden wind-up novelty was ready to be sealed in a padded envelope to be sent to his love (3).
Arden went into Franklin’s London house and the murderers waited outside. Shakebag produced a large jemmy which had previously been stuffed down back of his trousers. He practised swinging it and accidentally hit Black Will with it. This replaced the original text’s shop window accidentally dropped onto Black Will’s head. Shakebag tried to revive Black Will during which time Arden left the house and passed by them.
Greene and the murderers rounded on Michael and forced him to help them with their plan to murder Arden that night by leaving the house doors unlocked. From this point forth Black Will had a bandage round his head that served as reminder of the previous comic mishap.
Michael’s pangs of conscience, which we had previously seen, now obliged him to change his mind (4). He feared that the murderers would kill him too. His panic woke Arden and Franklin and the doors were found to be unlocked, after which they were secured.
The murderers entered with the stage in a total blackout to find the doors locked (5). The complete darkness was very odd and completely unnecessary. Dim light would have been understood to represent total darkness and the result was simply to create confusion. The sound effect of the door being tried was insufficient. This staging was perhaps made necessary by the set not allowing for the presence of a door, but one could have been set up temporarily.
Arden told Franklin about his dream in which he was captured like a deer (6). The original text’s reference to a “toil” was changed to the more comprehensible “net”. Arden’s description of his dream with its imagery of encroaching danger could have been given greater ominous weight to indicate the darker tone of the end of the play, but it felt like an intrusion into its overall gaiety.
The murderers intercepted Michael and he invented a story to excuse his failure to leave the house unlocked (7). Black Will put his knife to Michael’s ear as if ready to cut it off saying “This shall be your penance” but instead pulled the knife away and, laughing at his own joke, invited him to the Salutation inn.
As if to indicate his ambition to supplant Alice’s husband, Mosby sat at Arden’s desk for his soliloquy (8). This had overtones of Henry IV talking of how poor people sleep soundly and Macbeth’s paranoid desire to kill all his potential foes, but the speech fell flat because the character had not been previously presented to us as someone with that kind of tragic depth.
Bringing out the full comic potential of the initial scenes smothered the first inkling that this play was a tragedy that would end in multiple deaths. The audience was being fed comedy like sugar with the result that it developed a craving for more, to the exclusion of more nourishing dramatic sustenance.
Alice entered reading, not a prayer book to suggest piety, but a gaudily covered Bible: this did not suggest the level of seriousness that the sequence demanded. Alice appeared to have changed her mind about the murder of her husband, and Mosby was angry at this betrayal. When she tore the pages out of the Bible, this and their sudden seriousness looked barely credible.
They kissed and made up just as Bradshaw brought in a letter from Greene informing her of their failure to kill Arden in London. Bradshaw was offered a cup of beer, and he ran off mouthing “a cup of beer” as if really grateful for it.
The murderers positioned themselves ready to attack up on the balcony, but fell into a comic fight until Greene intervened to refocus them on the job (9). While Arden talked with Franklin down below, Black Will put together a sniper’s rifle but failed to have it ready in time. Their complete ineptitude was hilariously highlighted by Shakebag consulting the rifle’s instruction leaflet.
Lord Cheiny (Joe Bannister) and his Man (Peter Bray) came running in wearing lycra running gear. The presence of multiple witnesses meant that the would-be murderers had missed their chance again. Their bickering attracted the attention of the men on stage who looked up, prompting the murderers to conceal themselves by standing still like posts or trees.
Lord Cheiny invited Arden to dine with him on Sheppey, which the murderers overheard providing them with their next opportunity for assassination.
Arden set off for Sheppey, allowing Greene to show Alice the poisoned crucifix he had prepared as a device to kill her husband (10). Clarke wore blue latex protective gloves to handle the toxic crucifix and he made Alice put on pair as well when she took it from him.
The stage filled with dense smoke to represent the fog as the Ferryman (Ken Nwosu) escorted Arden and Franklin across to Sheppey (11).
Shakebag and Black Will also became lost in the dense fog (12). After hearing the faint sound of Arden’s party passing by, Shakebag fell into the large open stage trap representing the dank marshy ditch and emerged covered in mud. He was helped out by the Ferryman who informed them that they had once again missed Arden.
Greene, Mosby and Alice discovered that this latest attempt had failed and the murderers vowed to catch Arden on his return. The plot in which Alice and Mosby were to confront Arden arm-in-arm was cut and its setup was therefore cut from the end of the scene.
The character of Dick Reede became in this production a Mrs Reede (Lizzie Hopley), who intercepted Arden to complain of about being evicted from her land (13). She had been previously shown trying to catch his attention, so that her approach here was the successful culmination of her previous strenuous efforts.
The fatal curse/premonition by Reede that the land Arden had taken would “be ruinous and fatal unto thee” was underlined by the back of the set turning dark red to suggest bloodshed and the ominous hand of fate.
But set amid the comedy of the failed murderers, this foreshadowing of the play’s tragic ending felt bolted on, an intrusion of seriousness into the continuing sitcom.
The entire sequence in which Arden discovered Mosby and Alice together and the fight between them, also involving Black Will and Shakebag, was cut. This was possibly to reduce the production’s running time, or perhaps it was felt that the elderly Arden could not take the murderers on in direct combat using modern weapons without killing them. The character of Arden was probably originally conceived as a younger and more vigorous than the man presented here.
The murderers met up with Alice and Michael and a plot was laid to kill Arden that night in the house (14). A dining table was set out.
The reference in the text to “tables” was changed to make it clear they were going to play “cards”. In keeping with the modern setting there was no mention of horses or Arden’s counting house.
Mosby brought Arden back and pretended to have fallen out with Alice with the result that Arden then begged him to stay. They drank champagne and sat down to play cards, while the murderers gathered downstage and watched.
Michael suggested that Black Will should creep between his legs which resulted in Michael sitting astride him and both edged forward to sneak up on Arden. This was inherently ridiculous and showed that even at this late stage, the production was intent of milking every last laugh from the plot.
On the key phrase “Now I can take you” Black Will wrapped a towel around Arden’s head, dragged him downstage and then stabbed him.
After repeated stabbings by the murderers, Alice seized a knife and stabbed Arden too.
This really was the point at which the comedy should have ceased.
Instead of placing the body in the counting house, they put the body in a large cardboard box and used the warehouse winch (no dining room should be without one) to hoist the box up into the air. Susan and Alice tried unsuccessfully to clean the blood from the floor, so rushes were strewn over it.
The dinner guests arrived and were plied with drinks. The asides between Michael and Susan in which he planned to poison Alice were cut.
This was to focus attention on the blood soaking out of the bottom of the cardboard box. This drew excited audience attention as some individuals pointed upwards at it to alert their neighbours.
The conspirators managed to persuade the guests to leave and then brought the box down. As they did this snow began to fall along the edges of the stage so that this zone represented the outside where the body was being deposited while inside represented the house. As the box was lowered, it was tipped on its side and the body dumped on the snow to represent its disposal outside, after which the conspirators moved back inside.
The watch entered the house, prompting Alice to act innocent by asking them if they had brought her husband home, but they had in fact come for Black Will.
Franklin announced that Arden’s body had been found despite the fact that it had just sat at the edge of the stage unseen and undiscovered by anyone else. This was a glaring hole in the staging. Franklin produced the hand towel and knife which would be the main evidence against the conspirators, but these had not lain with the body at any point and their appearance now looked strange.
Franklin pieced together the evidence which pointed towards Alice’s guilt against which she could only offer feeble explanations.
The separate scenes for Shakebag (15) and Black Will (17) were cut so that we then saw Alice’s and Mosby’s confessions (16). The actors picked up chairs and sat on them spread around the stage to rue their fate as isolated individuals rather than as a group conversation (18). A voice announced that Mosby and Susan were to be executed, Alice was to be burnt and Michael along with (the completely innocent) Bradshaw were to be put to death.
The Epilogue was spoken by Alice rather than Franklin. She explained the gruesome fates of those who had initially escaped, setting the final tragic note on proceedings.
Nothing in the previous 105 minutes had suggested this bleak conclusion so that it appeared incongruously tacked on at the end.
The RSC did not know what to do with this not-Shakespeare play. It was scared of putting audiences off with an unfamiliar antiquated work and so tried as far as possible to make it appear modern and ‘relevant’, a process which did not do the play justice. Turned into a semi-sitcom, Arden of Faversham was wrenched completely out of its historical context so that residual faithfulness to the text and story clashed with the production’s tacit desire to do away with them completely.
There is a spectre haunting the Swan Theatre: the spectre of One Man, Two Guvnors.