MINXY MURDEROUSNESS AMID THE WAVING CATS..
Polly Findlay, who gave us the National Theatre’s tough Antigone and Derren Brown’s Svengali, has great fun with RSC directorial debut: heavy snow, thick fog, pitch darkness, the more evil characters enjoying petulant asides to the audience, and a crane facilitating a memorably unsuccessful attempt at hiding a corpse. Oh, and a startling final treatment of Chinese Lucky Waving Cats. It is a play which demands no less: as Stratford’s “Roaring Girls” season rolls on in the small auditorium down the corridor from the male political solemnities of Henry IV, anything less than a full-throated 100-minute trip over the top and down the other side would be unwise.
For it’s no masterpiece. It’s an anonymous 1592 play, bits of it fairly randomly ascribed down the centuries to Kyd, Marlowe, and Shakespeare himself, though there’s only one scene, a ferocious lovers’ tiff, which for me rises to a Shakespearian level of vigorous insult. Elsewhere there is a sense that his contemporaries, between beers, were taking the mick. Ian Bonar’s nervous manservant William has a Hamlettish soliloquy about whether to collaborate in the central murder, and Sharon Small’s flirting, wriggling, slinky finger-snapping killer-wife is awarded an improbable Lady Macbeth moment. Think of it as a prototype Ealing black comedy; it bears the same relationship to Shakespeare as The Comic Strip Presents does to a solemn BBC drama.
Not least because this is a thoroughly middle-class tale. It could come straight out of a modern tabloid, and Findlay makes Arden (Ian Redford, splendidly fat-cat) not only a 21c property man but owner of a warehouse packing up terrible gold Chinese waving-cats, presumably as a cheerfully unsubtle symbol of naff pointless globalization. Sharon Small as Alice is equally TOWIE, in Lacroix-style garish outfits and inch-high aquamarine eyeshadow which precedes her into the room.
It was based on a real murder in the mid-16c: Thomas Arden was killed by his wife Alice and her lover, who hired a hit-man. Additional interest arises from the fact that Arden is no innocent: in the few poignant moments petitioners beg for the return of land and livelihoods which he has annexed. There is a sub-plot, of which Findlay makes the most, involving rival suitors for Alice’s terrified maid (a physically hilarious though mainly silent Elspeth Brodie in Marigold gloves). The larkiness, however, stems from the glorious (Ealing!) incompetence of the plots: first Alice tries to poison Arden and he dislikes the porridge: Small hurls it around the stage with magnificent petulance. Then they persuade an idiotic painter (Christopher Middleton) to make a lethal poisoned crucifix (very Jacobean, that) protecting himself by stuffing rhubarb up his nose. But nothing comes of that.
Mainly, though, the murder is delegated to Black Will and Shakesbag – Jay Simpson and Tony Jayawardena – who when not accidentally knocking one another out or falling in ditches, can be seen in the gallery overhead fighting hopelessly over the instruction book for a laser-sighted sniper rifle. Top marks to both for not falling off the catwalk into the audience’s laps, either in the pitch dark or the thickest fog I have ever seen on stage. They get Arden in the end, of course, and justice gets them all. Macbeth it ain’t, but smartly done.