Arden of Faversham, Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – review

The stage is littered with maneki-neko, those golden, Oriental, waving cat figurines; as we enter, the title character’s employees are boxing these things for dispatch. Polly Findlay’s production of this play based on a true story from 1551 is set distinctly in the modern day. The shriekingly un-Elizabethan gold cats are a nod to the value clashes that run through the play, between older moralities and more expedient, sometimes more specious perspectives.

Their packaging carries an image of a smiling Alice Arden, who is neglected by her husband yet proves the real, villainous focus of the piece (earning its inclusion in this Royal Shakespeare Company “Roaring Girls” strand) as she and her lover scheme to kill Arden. There’s a lot of philosophical hinterland here, but rather than obtruding it remains modestly hinter.

The foreground belongs to that sub-genre known as domestic tragedy: this tragedy is Alice’s, as she chooses to transgress that clear and obvious line of murder. Yet the tragic tone only grows unambiguous in the closing minutes. The first hour and a half or so contains much black comedy, as the supposedly secret plot to kill Arden embraces almost every character onstage and (by my count) five failed attempts before the climactic gory disposal. We see Jay Simpson and Tony Jayawardena as a pair of cut-throats talking big but repeatedly getting caught up in slapstick with a machine gun or an enormous crowbar, or simply lost in thick stage fog.

Why are these two miscreants named Will and Shakebag? Did Shakespeare himself write the anonymous piece? Some say so; there is a plausible case for his having penned at least a central scene of argument between Alice and her lover Mosby, where Sharon Small demonstrates why this is properly Alice’s play.

Director Findlay walks a canny line between ancient and modern in staging and ideas; she expands the minimal role of Mosby’s sister Susan (Elspeth Brodie) to include a wealth of wordless drudgery that is by turns comical and exquisitely agonising. She takes matters at a decent lick, too (the performance lasts barely half as long as either of the Henry IV plays currently running next door in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre), so that it is always events that carry us on. We can stop to reflect afterwards, unlike Alice for whom afterwards is crucially too late.

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