Arden v Arden

Stage

Arden v Arden theatre review (Hayloft, Melbourne)

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The author of Arden of Faversham, first written down in 1592, is unknown. The play about a ploy to kill a successful businessman (carried out by his wife and some disgruntled village-folk) has been attributed to anyone and everyone: Thomas Kyd, Christopher Marlow and even William Shakespeare. So writer/director Benedict Hardie probably needn’t have any great reverence for the original playwright in his bold adaptation; Arden v Arden.
As the audience members take their seats, the stage is in complete darkness, but the spectators are lit with almost blindingly bright lights, giving the impression they’re the ones who are about to be examined. If this was Hardie’s intention in bringing the work to the stage, he’s succeeded, to a certain extent.
Alice and Thomas Arden’s (Emily Tomlins and Gareth Reeve) marriage has well and truly run its course. There are years of anger and bitterness between them and Alice is in love with another man. But a divorce isn’t on the cards; Alice’s parents have made it clear that she won’t inherit their fortune if she separates from Thomas. The solution? Well she’s going to have to get away with murder.
After a failed poisoning attempt with her lover Mosbie (Stefan Bramble) at her side, she happens upon Greene (Brigid Gallcher), a single mother who is furious at Thomas (a property developer in Hardie’s version), after being booted out of her home. Alice and Greene join together in an unlikely pairing to wipe Thomas out of the picture.
The first half of Arden v Arden has been re-written by Hardie, and takes place in the world of wealthy Australian property developers and the people underneath them who fall victim to their greed. The second half uses the original text, though the characters maintain all their 2013 traits. The ensemble work is truly impressive, and there’s strength in the subtleties of this production – it’s performed on a mostly bare set by Charlotte Lane and starkly lit by Amelia Lever-Davidson – but it doesn’t quite live up to its own promise.
In the first half, James Deeth’s Franklin says to Thomas: “There are people and there are murderers. You’re people.” And that’s a big part of the problem. Though the characters’ motivations for wanting Thomas dead are well-established, the characters are too recognisable as just “people”, and none of them seem to have quite the drive to risk everything to commit the deed.
To combat this, the text and the performances lean towards farce. There are great laughs from Sarah Ogden as Black Will with Paul Blenheim as her offsider Shakebag, as well as Tom Dent’s lovably oblivious Clarke and James Deeth’s free-wheeling Franklin. But then at other times, it veers back to the straight-laced tragedy of the original text, which is a bit of a shame, because there’s a hilarious black comedy about an ill-fated murder plot fighting to get out.
When the play reverts back to the original text, a little over halfway through, Emily Tomlin’s Alice really comes to life. She’s deliberately depicted as cold-hearted in the first half (presumably to make her homicidal ambitions more believable), but her anguish comes to the fore in the second. But then, her sudden change in character doesn’t quite gel with what went before.
There’s a lot to savour in each half of this production, but it feels like a surprisingly safe bet – if the adaptation isn’t a total success, we’ve still got some of the original text to save the day. But the adaptation is strong and intriguing, if flawed. I think the audience would rather see that play in its entirety.
[box]Arden v Arden plays Northcote Town Hall, Studio 1 until 8 December. Tickets are available at hayloftproject.com[/box]

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