Arden v Arden

The Elizabethan tragedy Arden of Faversham is shifted into contemporary Australia in Hayloft's Melbourne curtain call.
Arden v Arden

Photo by Sarah Walker

Acclaimed theatre company The Hayloft Project’s Melbourne swan song before relocating to Sydney, Arden V Arden, ambitiously splices together a classic tragedy of bitter murder and a contemporary Australian setting in a darkly farcical way.

Hayloft have taken the first half, though it feels more like two-thirds really, of the Elizabethan tragedy Arden of Faversham by Anonymous and rewritten it into a contemporary Australian idiom. They’ve kept the basic structure of the original play and the same characters but added a bit of gender-bending and Aussie tweaks to amp up the humour and pop-culture satire. In the second half they revert to the original Elizabethan setting and text with all the wonderful texture and cadence you might expect of that era.

It’s an interesting device that aims to draw parallels between 1592 England, when the play was first set down, and now, illuminating universal themes of greed, power, class, revenge, lust, and poor marriage choices generally.

Arden of Faversham by Anonymous, a story with all the trappings of every great tabloid scandal, was itself based on the real-life murder of Thomas Arden by his wife and her lover in the mid-1500s. Its true-crime credentials give it that extra grittiness as much today as it did four centuries ago.

No one but his best friend Franklin seems to like Arden much. He is rich and successful in property, mean, self-absorbed and opportunistic; all the qualities we expect in a modern day entrepreneur. He’s miserable however, convinced that despite her protests his wife Alice is having an affair with her childhood love Mosby. Of course, it’s true. Alice despises Arden and wants him dead and with Mosby plots to have Arden killed. Their attempt to poison him fails but when Alice meets Greene, who has her own grievances against Arden, she finds a conduit to contract assassins Black Will and Shakebag to kill Arden for her. They prove to be somewhat inept murderers and after various increasingly farcical attempts the deed is finally done by Alice’s own hand. Ultimately Arden dispatching is a morality tale where no one comes out of Alice’s betrayal of her husband well.

Establishing the story and characters in a modern setting first certainly assists the audience’s comprehension of the plot when it shifts to the Elizabethan prose. It’s also fun. Smart phones are used in a variety of creative ways and there are numerous cute popular culture references. The production also mocks various Aussie archetypes and attitudes and throws in some barbed political commentary as well. Recasting assassin Black Will as a pregnant ex-Afghanistan war veteran turned hit-woman is typical of the playfulness as is an aside with a Vietnamese delivery driver who advocates voting for Tony Abbott because he’ll at least Stop the Boats.

In the second half things get serious. The Elizabethan language itself seems to make the audience sit up and pay attention, accentuating and making far clearer the intense emotions and motives of the characters. The direction intensifies too. At the play’s climax, Arden’s murder, the tension is palpable and drawn out excruciatingly. All humour and satire slips away in the raw violence and extreme act of killing.

The play is written and directed by Benedict Hardie in his first production as the Artistic Director of The Hayloft Project, having taken over from Anne-Louise Sark in June. Hardie has been with The Hayloft Project since the beginning however, joining as Associate Artist back in 2008. He has written, directed and performed in many of the company’s productions including By Their Own Hands presented as part of this year’s MTCs NEON Festival of Independent Theatre, the darkly comic Delectable Shelter, Yuri Wells, 3xSisters, The Seizure and The Nest.

This production is pared back to the minimum, the set nothing more than a simple podium, a table, four chairs and a drinks cabinet walked in by the cast. The lighting is similarly minimalist but used effectively to communicate changes of mood and a building sense of malice along with musical stings between acts. In the intimate space the actors stand at the edges of the performance area throughout stepping into their roles and back to the shadows seamlessly.

All of which, serves to put the emphasis on the actors – and the script. Mostly the ensemble cast carried it off, with some stand out performances that lightened the mood and pace, particularly from James Deeth as Franklin and Naomi Rukavina in her various cameos. There were some patchy performances however, and overt writerly cleverness at times seems to overwhelm the actors’ ability to portray believable characters or to just get the quite complex plot across.

Ostensibly Arden V Arden is ‘an examination of our society today, where it has come from, and if it’s heading in the right direction’. That seems a bit grand and I’m not sure that Arden V Arden provides enormous insight into either past or our contemporary society’s great moral challenges. Nonetheless it is interesting theatre that certainly entertains.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Arden v Arden

Presented by Darebin Arts Speakeasy

Written by Anonymous and Benedict Hardie

Partially adapted from Arden of Faversham (1592)

Directed by Benedict Hardie

Set and Costume Designer Charlotte Lane

Lighting Designer Amelia Lever-Davidson

Sound Designer Alister Mew

Dramaturg Lucy Moir

Fight Director Nigel Poulton

Assistant Fight Director Gareth Reeves

Producer Rebekah Berger

With Paul Blenheim, Stefan Bramble, James Deeth, Tom Dent, Brigid Gallacher, Tariro Mavondo, Sarah Ogden, Gareth Reeves, Naomi Rukavina, Anna Samson, Emily Tomlins

Stage Manager Harriet Gregory

Production Manager Bron Belcher

Photo by Sarah Walker

20 November – 8 December Tuesday – Saturday 8pm, Sunday 5pm (Unfortunately, performances on Thursday 28 November and Thursday 5 December have been cancelled.)

Northcote Town Hall, Studio 1 189 High St, Northcote

$27 full / $22 concession / $20 previews

Fiona Mackrell

Monday 25 November, 2013

About the author

Fiona Mackrell is a Melbourne based freelancer. You can follow her at @McFifi or check out www.fionamackrell.com