Arden of Faversham

Anonynous (1592)
Em-Lou Productions
Rose Theatre, Bankside

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Crimewatch UK travels to Elizabethan Kent in this darkly sinister drama from 1592. Based on an infamous murder case from the 1550s, included in Holinshed’s historical potpourri as a morality tale of greed, lust and murder, Arden of Faversham has all the ingredients of a fine thriller. Duplicitous wife, poisoning clerk, lascivious young gallant, harsh land-stealing husband, bumbling ex-military murderers, and just enough slapstick comedy to keep the masses amused.

We know the eventual outcome. We know ‘them that want to do it’ and who eventually do do it will get their just reward, but the journey of failed attempt after failed attempt is as exciting and plot-twist-laden as any Inspector Morse or Midsummer Murder.

Mr Arden of Faversham is a greedy man. Based on a real-life character (in fact, nearly everyone portrayed actually lived and suffered just as the story tells), Arden was infamous for effectively monopolizing local land left vacant by the Reformation. His wife, Alice, tried every possible means to murder her husband, eventually succeeding with a frenzied blood-letting in their own home.

Thinking a snowfall would hide the tracks of the murder, she and her accomplices removed the body to a nearby field. It didn’t take a great detective, however, to trace the murderers back to the scene. Executions followed, with Alice burnt at the stake.

This wonderful play by an unknown author (T.S. Eliot thought Kyd, others Shakespeare) is very well served by the young cast at the Rose Theatre. All who have seen productions there will know the unusual performance space, a narrow platform overlooking an archaeological site. Director Peter Darney uses the space well, his actors cavorting among the audience or scrabbling on the wooden floor, swords and daggers in hand.

Swiftly paced and majorly cut at just under two hours, the play romps along at great speed. This is helped by an energy and enthusiasm from the ensemble which never flags. Of particular note is Francis Adams as Mr Arden’s Franklin friend. A Franklin was an extensive landowner who lacked noble pedigree, Arden’s friend is obviously happy to mix with his parvenu landowning neighbour. Adams gives a remarkably sympathetic performance, full of pathos and warmth, a fitting contrast to the passions displayed around him.

Passion is, of course, the problem, especially for Alice Arden, excellently played by Rachel Dale. Unencumbered by the excesses of period costuming, but still evoking a the Elizabethan gentlewoman in her closely-trussed corset, Dale heaves and sighs for her lover, Mosby, whilst plotting like a vixen her husband’s demise. Presented by the play as a vicious and conniving witch, Alice Arden’s role is a misogynist’s dream. Dale’s performance adds light and lustre to what all-too-easily could be a two-dimensional caricature.

Alice loves Mosby, played with delicious nonchalance by Jonathan Woolf. Mosby is an out-and-out cad of Victorian melodramatic proportions. His petulant lust perfectly juxtaposed by his obvious greed. This would be a rich widow ripe for the picking. If only Arden himself would drop dead. To assist the process, a pair of bumbling murderers are hired. All sound and fury, Black Will and Shakebag squabble and rant without ever committing the perfect murder. It is more by luck than cunning that Arden finally dies, the knife wielded not by these military ne'er-do-wells, but by the wife who has most to gain.

Arden of Faversham is an excellent production given the obvious limitations of set and costume-budget. Its actors are dedicated to the play and work well as a unit. Sadly, a small audience made their task that much more difficult, although those who brave this Bankside oddity are definitely in for a treat. Here’s hoping the Rose Theatre’s £4.5 million Lottery Fund bid, finally to excavate the remaining site and install a state-of-the-art performance space hovering on a reinforced glass floor above the original Rose playhouse, gets the go-ahead. It would be wonderful for its early modern ghosts to find a more fitting theatrical venue.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby

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