Despite living in Stratford, I’ve managed somehow to avoid most of the RSC’s summer productions. This now means I have a backlog of plays to review, which in turn means I’ll probably consign myself to relatively brief comments on this blog (though fuller reviews may appear elsewhere). I’ve been looking forward to seeing the Roaring Girl season at the Swan, which includes, appropriately enough, Middleton and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl, Webster’s The White Devil and Arden of Faversham. I’ll start with Arden, a play which Shakespeare may have had a hand in, according to recent attribution studies by scholars using computational linguistics. If he did write part of it, we still don’t know who he was writing with; like the fate of the Painter, it may be a mystery which is never solved.
Arden of Faversham is a really curious play. It’s about a real-life domestic murder which was, remarkably, related in Holinshed’s Chronicles alongside stories of kings and statecraft. It is, then, a highly political play about both the household and the state which plays fascinating games with the nature of reality and fiction. At the same time, it is also a terrific, darkly comic play. In a recent review for The Guardian, Michael Billington describes it as reeking of ‘documentary realism’, but this is surely a misjudgment. A large part of the play is dedicated to the brilliant comic double act of Shakebag and Black Will, two villains who are hired to murder Arden, but who continually and spectacularly fail to do so. In one scene they pursue Arden across a misty marsh: Shakebag ends up falling into a ditch. This is not quite documentary realism, even if it is drawing upon historical accounts. It’s hard, then, for me to agree with Billington, that the play needs to be set in the Tudor past. Indeed, to see the play merely as ‘a fascinating historical document’, as he asks us to, is to do it a disservice. It’s true that the play draws some of its charge from the fact that it is based on a real and (relatively) recent murder, but it seems difficult and potentially crass to try and recreate those resonances.
So, I’ve nothing in principle against the modernization of this play. It might even be that some of the precise political resonances of Arden might not transmit all that well to a modern audience not especially well-versed in the rhetoric of sixteenth-century domestic politics; when the play is modernized, this becomes less of an issue. The production does try to address the different kinds of social elevation at work in the play, often through the use of costume, but here, again, I disagree with Billington’s description of Mosby as a ‘sharp-suited arriviste swathed in bling’. The point seemed to me that Mosby isn’t sharp-suited: he’s wearing a blazer rolled up at the sleeves, a patterned shirt which is only half tucked in to a pair of skinny jeans, a pair of white high-topped trainers, and, initially, brightly-rimmed sunglasses. A social-climber, yes, but also, we are invited to think, a laughable fool. Clothing in this production is made to do a lot of work, especially when it comes to relaying social or political comment.
I want to end, though, by noting how one of the production’s updates seems curiously sixteenth-century in nature: the curse laid against Arden. In the play, Arden takes control of some land previously owned by a man called Reede. Reede’s various attempts to reclaim his land come to nothing, causing him to place a curse on Arden. The curse works: as Reede prophesied, Arden is murdered, by his friends, in the plot of land he has claimed as his own. In this production, Reede is a woman, Mistress Reede, played by Lizzie Hopley. So, it is she who curses Arden, and it is she who, in a piece of interpolated dialogue, is reprimanded as a witch by Arden and Franklin. Witchcraft (which will come to the fore in The Witch of Edmonton, to be performed at the Swan in the Autumn) seems to be a major concern for sixteenth-century society, but this is, in fact, a modern update. It’s also an interesting one, especially in the wider context of the Roaring Girls season. On face-value it is the action-driving Alice (Sharon Small), who is the roaring girl-figure, but Mistress Reede, who determinedly faces off against Arden in an attempt to reclaim what is rightly hers, emerges, unexpectedly as a Roaring Girl of greater moral fibre.
A fuller review of this production will appear in Shakespeare.