Preview: Arden of Faversham

Gemma Sheehan 5 March 2017

Promising a world of ‘coercion, classism and patriarchy’, Arden of Faversham opens at the ADC this coming Tuesday. I sat down with the cast to discuss their interpretation of this Renaissance tragedy, and the implications of the adapted 1920s time setting.

You may have seen promotional material for Arden of Faversham already: hand painted flyers; page banners; stylised black and white pictures of cast members. All point to a defined aesthetic – one we might associate with the glamour and hedonism of an imagined 1920s ideal. Yet the cast is keen to emphasise this glitz and glamour isn’t just for stylization. It’s not just the 1920s, they explain: it’s 1928, and it’s set in England. As the proto-middle class realism reveals, this is very different to a Gatsby-esque ideal.

The play follows a series of plots to murder the titular Arden, whilst also revealing gender and class struggles. Like the mystery of Arden’s death, the playwright is a bit of a mystery too. “No one knows who wrote it,” director Anna Jennings tells me. Henry Eaton-Mercer, who plays Franklin, says he “think[s] it was written by the unsung hero of the proto-feminist domestic tragedy. It strikes a chord with all of us … we see part of ourselves in the grotesque yet beautiful scenes that unfold before us.”

Enthusiasm for the play and incredible attention to detail typifies this team. As they talk me through the nuances brought to the text by their gender changes and backstories, it becomes clear that their choice of the 1920s is not arbitrary, and that it’s introduced a dialogue with the original play of the 1590s. Sabrina Gilby, who plays Greene, tells me that in the script she is originally a male landowner. By gender swapping the character they’ve introduced the idea of a childhood relationship that has “built up camaraderie between the female characters of the play,” and opened up “a lot more power and gender politics”. This ambivalence is something Anna has tried to take further in the murder plot. “It’s this really abstract idea – I think no one actually engages in the reality that Arden will actually be dead,” she tells me. Anna plans to emphasise this by making “everyone ethically nuanced”: there aren’t good and bad people, and she wants the audience to “walk away thinking ‘I don’t know what I think’”.

The cast recreates some of the scenes they’ve been working on for me, and Anna’s comments on the changing tone of the piece are really emphasised. Arden’s death scene – without giving anything away – has almost comical undertones in its blocking, and Joe Spence (who plays love interest Mosbie) describes it as “one of the funniest things” in the play. Yet being lucky enough to see an emotionally charged scene between Alice and Mosbie (fantastically acted by Isobel Laidler and Joe Spence), the emotional weight of this domestic tragedy shines through.  

The set of this play, designed by Ciaran Walsh, is exciting. Anna explains that they’re building a 1920s manor house on stage, and that they’ve “spent £130 on a chandelier”. For outdoor scenes, they’re incorporating a gauze screen that separates the stage so the house is always visible and the set feels naturalistic. This is reflected in the acting: there’s a lot that’s not scripted. “There’s lots of people pottering around the house,” says Anna, “there’s party scenes, there’s a lot happening”. She reveals that she doesn’t “try and come to rehearsals with blocking in mind”: instead she asks “what people would like to be doing, and then we talk about what does and doesn’t work”. This organic approach emphasises the ensemble nature of the cast, and points to a piece of theatre promising both fresh interpretation and visual enjoyment.

Arden of Faversham plays at the ADC from Tuesday 7 – Saturday 11 March, at 7.45pm