An Elizabethan Song and Dance

The Maiden Thought Theatre perform an anonymous English play from 1592

After the success of John Lyly’s Gallathea last summer, the Maiden Thought Theatre have taken on another Elizabethan drama. Congratulations, first, to MTT for actually finding the play; it’s not as if it has been kept under wraps for 400 years – there have, apparently, been other recent productions internationally, including the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2015 – but it must have taken a lot of detective work to dig it up.

By Ian Watson

Arden of Faversham (original spelling Feversham) was first performed in 1592 and is based on the real-life murder of the entrepreneur Thomas Arden, committed in 1551. The plot can be reduced to: young wife plus lover plot to do away with her older husband; but it is the twists and turns of the repeated comic bungling of the murder in what is regarded as the ‘first domestic tragedy’ that breathes life into the story.
Arden finally gets murdered only after five attempts in five acts. Then there is the amateurish, almost simpatico way the murderers hope to conceal the body outside in the field in the hope that passing travellers will be suspected; they believe that the February snow will cover their tracks, but the snow stops falling and their footsteps lead back directly to the house.
Behind the thriller plot is a typical Elizabethan conflict of class, money and land. Thomas Arden has become very rich and influential through Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, through which he has acquired property, and he is extremely unhappy that his much younger wife has taken – of all things – a butcher as a lover. Himself a parvenu, he accuses his low-born rival of wearing a sword he is not entitled to and will only let Mosbie use his dagger against his sword in any duel: ‘Then Arden draws forth Mosbie’ s sword. Arden. So, sirrah; you may not wear a sword, / The statute makes against artificers / I warrant that I do. Now use your bodkin.’

Bild: Linus Wirth

Who wrote the play? Was Will involved?

The play is anonymous, and experts have tried to uncover the identity of the author (or authors). Among the favourites are Christopher Marlowe and Thomas Kydd, but some computer concordances have pointed to Shakespeare (perhaps in collaboration with the others). And the play does have clear Shakespearean traits, notably the for him typical balance of comic, often plebeian elements and serious text, ‘this naked tragedy’ (Act V, Scene 6); and the blood motif at the end. Where Arden has been murdered in his chamber there is a large bloodstain on the floor which will not be washed away but constantly renews itself; and when Alice Arden throws herself in a show of contrition on her husband’s corpse in the snow, the body begins to bleed profusely, making her confess: ‘The more I sound his name, the more he bleeds; / This blood condemns me, and in gushing forth / Speaks as it falls, and asks me why I did it. / Forgive me, Arden.’ (Act V, Scene 3) Shades of Lady Macbeth over a dozen years later? And this conflict between the old aristocratic and the new capitalist world order is surely pure Shakespeare.

Bild: Linus Wirth

A brilliant production

The mise-en-scène of the play is ingenious. Director Julia Arroja da Silva has taken a double leap of faith: first, by transporting the setting into the film noir context of the 1940s and 1950s (not just the costumes but pistols for swords and daggers); and, secondly, by peppering the play with music and songs written by leading lady Frances Byrd. Some are ‘partly written’ by her, in that she has set to music a handful of sonnets of the period. The musical interludes, although lengthening the performance, lighten and aerate it. The play – and this is one of the particular strengths of this production – is in no way black and white. In spite of his wickedness and ruthlessness, Thomas can be rendered at least a little attractive as a cuckolded husband and the victim; and the murdering Alice is, after all, trapped in a marriage, probably arranged, with an older and brutal man, out of which she cannot otherwise escape.

From the outset, this production is full of what can only be described as Brechtian alienation effects, where the audience is unexpectedly forced to see the action from an ironic distance. The first and most startling comes at the very beginning, as Thomas Arden the villain performs a song about his marriage, while Frances Byrd as his wife has to play the violin in the band. The more he rants, the more off-key she has to play her fiddle – easier said than done. (That her resort to murder can be seen as an attempt to liberate herself from her role as second fiddle resonates well here.)

An excellent cast gives an excellent performance

The production lives mainly off the fine performances of the two main characters. Henrik Schäfer gives a wonderfully rounded performance of the extremely unpleasant nouveau riche Thomas Arden in that he also succeeds in giving his egomania and ruthlessness an occasional charm. Frances Byrd as his wife Alice is also excellent from beginning to end, combining a cheeky wickedness in the murder plot with a very convincing show of repentance after her husband’s death. Byrd plays Alice’s constant changes of heart between her husband and her lover so skilfully that we are left uncertain as to the anti-heroine’s real feelings. The other twelve ‘supporting’ actors are too many to be assessed individually, so the selection is restricted here to those who were outstanding. There are two of the women whose roles were feminised for logistical reasons: Mariam Assad as the terrifyingly murderous ‘Nurse’ Will; and Anna-Sophie Fuchs as ‘Maude’ Greene, spurned into homicidal action by the theft of her land. Of the men, Tim Spieker as the servant Michael, wooed by Alice into the murder plot by the promise that he can then marry his beloved Susan; and Marius Roskamp, who plays Mosbie the butcher with just the right amount of exaggerated panache.

The band deserve a paragraph of their own. With their light bar-room jazz they bid the audience welcome, and then accompany the action in a variety of musical genres and at all possible volumes: Luca Diebold, piano; Marcel Nolte, drums; and Jonas Roustai on double bass. This reviewer raises his hat.

All aspects of the production – from the posters and the playbill to the performance itself – confirm the increasingly professional nature of the undertaking, now set on a solid base as an ‘e.V.’ charitable institution. We look forward to the 2019 MTT production. Three times lucky? Or: Dreimal ist Bremer Recht.

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