"We’re setting the play in 1928, the year women and men gained equal voting rights"JOHANNES HJORTH

Arden of Faversham is a play I’ve often skipped past after spying on the contents pages of Renaissance drama anthologies. It’s there, but hardly read — a fact probably down to the anonymity of its author and its tricky verse. I sat down with Anna Jennings, who explained why it’s coming to the ADC. 

“There are noticeable Gatsby vibes, which is probably why the 1920s theme works well!”

“None of the characters are good or bad. They’re all very complex. There are moments in the play where you really sympathise and you really like them, but there are other moments when you think ‘that’s really horrible what they’re doing’, giving it that kind of ethical intensity.” She explains the outline of the plot to me, starting with Alice (Isobel Laidler), who “has fallen out of love with Arden (Tom Chamberlain), her husband. They are the wealthy and well-to-do couple of Faversham, leading a seemingly happy life. But there are cracks and tensions under the surface, and any passion that was there has dried up quite a long time ago. Alice is having an affair with Mosbie (Joe Spence), who’s ‘new money’, an upstart businessman type character — there are noticeable Gatsby vibes, which is probably why the 1920s theme works well! Her and Mosbie think they’re in love, but it’s not stable. Their shared fantasy is that they will kill Arden so they can live together.”

Jennings is setting the play in England in the 1920s. I asked whether this was a considered choice or simply an aesthetic? “We’re setting the play in 1928, the year women and men gained equal voting rights. I think it fits very well with the themes of the play. Class tensions play a part; the increasingly influential middle classes are still quashed by the rich. There are also gender tensions; Alice is a fantastic character. I can’t think of any Renaissance plays of this time which have a strong female protagonist like her. Alice is trying to escape the power Arden puts on her. She doesn’t get the power she wants over her own life. Both Arden and Mosbie manipulate her, so by escaping Arden she’s still falling into something quite similar.”

Ben Martineau and Tom Chamberlain jive away in the 1920s world of Jennings' Arden of FavershamJOHANNES HJORTH

Jennings explained how characters were developed in light of this context during rehearsals: “We did an in-character session where we reacted in character to news from 1928, and also talking about culture and having in-character reactions to that; is your character a fan of Picasso? Do they think modernist literature is silly? Do they have no clue what is going on in that cultural world at all?” I found myself impressed by how much work had gone into placing the play into the 20s, but wondered how the drama itself would be distinct to audiences already very familiar with Renaissance theatre. I asked Jennings how she thought Arden would surprise modern audiences. “It often doesn’t feel like a Renaissance play. The depth of this early Renaissance play is also surprising; often they don’t have that depth of character and the same nuance as later work.”

“Adultery, rigid social hierarchy, lust, murder: all the usual glamour and gore is present, but so too is the sparkling focus on a compelling female lead”

At this point Isobel walks in, with a rehearsal starting in a couple of minutes. I ask her how she has enjoyed the role. “I’ve loved it,” she tells me. “On first reading it has the capacity to be a really flat and boring character, but the more you read the text, you can drag out of it more and more tensions and thought processes”.

Tom Chamberlain, Arden, appears. After what I’ve heard from Jennings, I can’t help but ask the pertinent literary question on everyone’s mind: “Is Arden a bit of a dick?” Tom smiles. “Well, Anna said very early on that she wanted everyone to be very black and white, she wanted the audience to leave…”

At this, Jennings shoots Tom a look. “Oh, sorry, no! Not black and white,” he teases. “She wanted them to be morally dubious and complicated, yeah. I think they all have their moments of charm.”

Anna Jennings’ Arden of Faversham presents audiences with the well-trodden aspects of Renaissance drama in an unconventional way. Adultery, rigid social hierarchy, lust, murder: all the usual glamour and gore is present, but so too is the sparkling focus on a compelling female lead. The production is attempting to pay more than just lip service to the 1920s aesthetic, lacing this obscure, anonymous Elizabethan play with a modern intricacy.

Arden of Faversham runs at the ADC from 7th - 11th March, 7:45pm 

Sponsored links