"Perhaps nowhere else in the world," gushes the programme notes, "can a Shakespearian era play be presented on the very spot, against the backcloth of the original building..."; coming so soon after the Royal National Theatre's visit to perform Hamlet at Elsinore, this is a little unfortunate. However, the events surrounding the murder of Thomas Arden are more historically unambiguous than the story of the gloomy Dane. To stage this anonymous 1592 play in the Kentish garden of the house in question, and drag "Arden" out of the very room in which his historical original was murdered, gives matters a certain frisson.
But only, in Ian Garner's production for The What You Will Theatre Company [sic], occasionally. I want to make it absolutely clear that I am not looking down at this as being an amateur production, but nor will I condescend: audiences, after all, don't pay their money in order to make allowances. No, I'm afraid this just isn't a very good production. Garner's notes recognise the necessity "that the play go at a fair lick", but it simply does not do so: he could have shaved almost half an hour off the three-hour running time by sharpening up sluggish stage business and coming down hard on oratorical pauses, without needing to cut a word of the text (although discreet nipping and tucking could save another quarter-hour). Part of the problem is that, despite Faversham's relatively small size (its population is less than 20,000), even a sparse quota of ordinary urban background noise dictates that the actors in a townhouse's back garden will have to incline towards a bellowing delivery. Most of the cast, though, overplay in more ways than just vocally; only Lindy Kingsley as Arden's adulterous wife Alice hits the required register with any consistency – and given that her lover Mosby is played by director Garner, this is rather a telling point.
The comedy villains, incompetent "cutters" Black Will and Shakebag, play both comedy and villainy to the hilt. The physical business, whether slapstick or combat, is consistently directed and executed with a prim excess of caution. (Moreover, on the evening I saw the show, after being wounded in a sword fight, Mosby on his next entrance was nursing the wrong arm.) One or two of the minor actors recite their lines with their gaze fixed awkwardly on the ground rather than on either their interlocutors or the audience. The final curtain-call is a ludicrously misjudged stop-start affair which embarrasses both the audience who have to resume their polite applause several times and the actors for whom they have to do so. The production is in a good cause – profits go towards the Faversham Society's upkeep of the house itself – but this does not make it any less deficient theatrically.
Written for the Financial Times Web site, ft.com
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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