Enjoying its Canadian premiere at Artists’ Collective Theatre, Arden of Faversham (1590) is a play whose authorship has long been disputed. Scholars have attributed the domestic tragedy to the likes of Christopher Marlowe, Thomas Kyd, and William Shakespeare. While the authorship is still debated today, what is known for certain is that Arden of Faversham is based on a true crime from 1551.
Directed by Christopher Weddell, Arden of Faversham stages the grizzly murder of Thomas Arden (Peter Cameron) by his wife Alice (Jennifer Merio) and her lover, Mosbie (Felix Leblanc). Alice and Mosbie hire hitmen Black Will (Ben Francis) and Shakebag (Josh Bertwistle) to murder Thomas. Other conspirators include servants Michael (Jonathan Molinski) and Susan (Megan Baldrey), property rival Greene (Amanda Liz Cutting), and a painter named Clarke (Conrad Belau). The plot against Thomas repeatedly fails, despite many (humorous) attempts on his life.
Weddell has staged Arden of Faversham in the style of a film noir drama. An appropriate choice given that England’s seedy underbelly is thrust to the spotlight in this true crime dramatization. Weddell captures the style well by emphasizing the social decay surrounding the characters. Michelle McAulay’s lighting design sees the hall darkly lit , populating the performance area with shadows – shadows that hide malicious intent.
Weddell has turned an otherwise musty narrative that runs too long into something of a farce. The emphasis on character antics works fairly well with the film noir elements. Blackwill and Shakebag’s assasination attempts are played like a series of Boris and Natasha plots. Bertwistle returns each time filthier and more beaten up, barely able to talk, but just alive enough to try one more time. Really, the dark humour is not a gigantic leap considering the strangeness already present e.g. a painting that kills any who look it at.
Even still, the play runs far too long, especially since the audience knows Thomas will eventually get sacked. The big (and bloody) moment is quite rewarding, thankfully.
What slows the production are the number of set pieces that have to be wheeled around between scenes. Stairs are a prominent image here. The set, designed by Nigel Francis, is visually appealing, but the actual build is concerning. The Arden residence wobbles whenever actors go up and down the stairs.
Merio’s Alice is truly befitting of the title femme fatale. The actress delivers a striking performance as the seductress who bends men to her deadly will. Leblanc’s Mosbie may be a lover, but he is also a worthy opponent for Alice. Cameron carries himself well as Thomas, a wealthy and reviled businessman. Eric Pettifor joins Cameron as Thomas’ trusted companion. Francis and Bertwistle really throw themselves into the comedic roles of Blackwill and Shakebag, respectively. The audience laughs plenty watching these two fail again and again, receiving a beating each time by Cutting.
Even actors in smaller roles pull their weight in this production. Molinski gets big laughs from the audience in fun character moments peppered throughout. Linda Kee brings a delightful energy to the stage as Bradshaw, an unknowing accomplice who was acquitted posthumously. And Charlotte Loeppky, who plays various roles, is solid, making us wish she were given more stage time.
Certainly, Arden of Faversham is not for everyone. The Elizabethean tragedy is difficult to access, mainly due to its unruly length. Where this production succeeds is in its efforts to make the play accessible by adapting the narrative to a familiar context. Issues aside, ACT’s Arden of Faversham is an alluring production that delivers both intrigue and fun.
Artists’ Collective Theatre’s Arden of Faversham ran Oct 22 – 30 at Festival Hall.
Artists’ Collective Theatre: http://acttheatre.ca/