There can’t be many plays that leave you drenched in blood – we looked like we’d been incidental cast members for Titus Andronicus… – and yet where you also leave the theatre with a gentle, wistful English folk tune echoing around your head (courtesy of my hero, John Tams). And yet, a last-minute, off-the-cuff booking for the front row at Arden of Faversham (on at the Swan Theatre until 2 October 2014) did exactly that. (You’ll be pleased to learn that even pale clothes were cleaned to Lady Macbeth’s satisfaction, the following morning, after a quick wash: and all damn’d spots were outed…! Yet who would have thought the young man to have had so much blood in him? And survive!)
Is it by the Bard of Avon (whereas I’ll speak…), or some other famous contemporary; or is it by some talented, anonymous teller of tales? Who knows? There are certainly echoes of Macbeth in parts of it; and some of the writing is wonderfully crafted – although, even with references to Arden, Will, and Shakebag, most of it it lacks the density, complexity and inventiveness that I think are amongst Shakespeare’s trademarks. The mix of comedy and “most lamentable” tragedy is heady stuff; and there’s barely time to draw breath as events mount during the unbroken hundred minutes of plot and spiralling-out-of-control plotting. Be careful what you wish for….
Based on a gory true story, like The Roaring Girl (to which it is a companion piece, this season), it probably seems quite incredible, in our modern age, the lengths someone would go to in ridding themselves of one (albeit morally ambiguous, and land-grabbing) husband, simply to replace him with a newer model – especially considering the ever-expanding number of people who end up getting dragged into this sordid affair – and yet it makes for a great narrative!
The characters are not bluntly drawn, either – and the parts are given full, deep portrayals by the wonderful ensemble: Keir Charles, as Mosby, being a particular favourite; and making a swaggering entrance in an outfit that suits him perfectly, but will take a long time to forget! (Actually, the same can be said of many of the leading performers – including the scheming Sharon Small, as “sweet Alice” – and the set contributes well to the acceleratingly nightmarish qualities of the evening.) I just wanted to give Elspeth Brodie, as Susan, a big hug, though – as she gets forced into unwanted alliances, and punished unfairly, it seems to me: however innocent and reluctant she is as silent witness. Her almost permanent presence on-stage – an immensely impressive but subtle dramatic device: where she is constantly observing and trying to clean up everyone-else’s mess – is a chilling thread that runs steadfastly contrary to the guilt and evil being propagated by almost all around her.
In the end, it doesn’t matter who authored the script: it’s yet another rollicking good night out at the Swan; and, even if you don’t end up spattered in drops of blood, you may still find the odd tear (of both laughter and sadness) splashing onto your clothes.