Features Q&A and Interviews Published 9 May 2014

Polly Findlay: Death and the Maiden

Director Polly Findlay talks to us about authorship, heroines, husband-killers and her update of the anonymous Elizabethan play, Arden of Faversham, for the RSC.
Laura Seymour

The poster for Polly Findlay’s production of Arden of Faversham for the RSC shows a prim Sharon Small demurely enjoying a cup of tea in her smart suburban home as her dead husband’s feet poke out from behind the sofa. This production is part of the RSC’s 2014 Roaring Girls Season – which opened last month aptly enough with Middleton’s The Roaring Girl – and it seems fitting that the male body is sidelined whilst the female protagonist dominates the shot, half-smiling in a display of dangerous charm.

The play’s main character, Alice, murders her husband so that she can marry her wide-boy lover Mosby. Several passersby checking out the poster outside the theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon make comparisons with Desperate Housewives, but when I meet up with Findlay she is keen to dispel these easy stereotypes.

‘What I most wanted to avoid was telling the story of a vampy female killer’, Findlay says, pushing firmly against the  common cultural stereotype of the unmaternal, sexually-deviant female murderer, whose looks as much as her morals are the subject for media scrutiny. Instead, Findlay says she aimed to illuminate Alice’s ‘emotional availability…openness and charm’, as well as ‘her naivety, her innocence, her positivity’.

Findlay suggests that the British public’s differing, and binary, cultural expectations of male and female killers contaminates our expectations of stage heroines. She counters my suggestion that Alice is an unlikely heroine, ‘there’s an emotional, cultural baggage around the word “heroine”’. When it comes to male heroes, like Macbeth, she remarks, we don’t trouble ourselves with this idea of ‘straightforward moral goodness’: for all his deviousness and violence, Macbeth is still the play’s hero. For Findlay, Alice is a true heroine, ‘the driving force of the main narrative thrust of the play’: ‘we wanted to make her stay as clear and as prominent as possible’.

Written in 1592, and based on a true story, Arden of Faversham has been attributed (with a huge deal of inconclusive debate, as stylistic analysis programmes whirred away on clunky retro computers) to various combinations of Shakespeare, Kyd, and Marlowe. The programme for Findlay’s 2014 version states that the play is, very definitely, ‘By Anon’. ‘It was particularly liberating to acknowledge the play was a multi-authored thing’, Findlay tells me, especially as ‘in this country we’re obsessed with the single writer-genius’. In staging Arden of Faversham, she says that she was not constrained by uncovering some ‘pure’ idea of authorial intention, but instead she and the cast felt a greater ‘licence in becoming active storytellers’, and ‘a greater right than usual’ to be co-authors of the play.

The fact that ‘Faversham’, a town Findlay describes as being close enough to London to be aspirational yet too far removed to be part of the metropolis itself, is in the play’s title partly motivated her decision to emphasise the suburban setting. She says, ‘a sense of aspiration, of suburban ambition…absolutely runs through the spirit of the play’, particularly in terms of ideas of ‘short term consumerist gain… the endless renewal of consumerist desire’. The original playtext is dominated by sixteenth century furore about enclosure: a rich landowner, Arden has bought up land that had previously provided sustenance for poorer families, with no intention of providing these now starving people with any compensation.

Findlay wanted to find ‘a contemporary gesture that created the same feeling’, and so decided to use a huge Amazon-like corporation, of the kind the buys out smaller companies and destroys the souls and steals the youths of millions of workers, as her central concept. The pre-show action onstage involves cast members in overalls silently, and with different manifestations of crazed pain on each of their dim-eyed faces, packing identical shiny maneki-neko figurines into cardboard boxes labelled with Alice’s glamorous grin and the slogan ‘Arden of Faversham: Love it. Buy it’. Having finished their duties towards the end of their shift, the workers begin painstakingly to unpack and repack the same items in order to look assiduously busy without actually being in the least productive. Findlay was very interested in Alice’s ‘consumerist approach to marriage’: ‘I don’t want this husband, I want another one, so I’ll kill him’. This makes the ‘Love it. Buy it.’ slogan, and the fact that a giant cardboard box from his own warehouse serves as Arden’s spectacular coffin, marred by some hilarious sanguine sogginess, particularly apt.

‘The tone of the play always feels like the biggest challenge’, Findlay says, as she speaks of her decision to preserve certain early modern elements in her production. Notably, Alice is ultimately sentenced to death by burning, which in the early modern era reflected the status of the husband-killer as a perpetrator of ‘petty treason’: ‘you’d killed the king of your household’. Both of Findlay’s parents work in the criminal justice system, and she told me that in part her Arden of Faversham is an exploration of this system’s workings, particularly the idea of ‘vengeance-based justice’. This is something that probably none (Clarke the poisoner’s fate is recorded as unknown) of those involved in the attempts on Arden’s life escaped.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Findlay’s account of her approach to directing this play was the way she emphasised Alice’s lack of a coherent plan regarding precisely how to kill her husband. Findlay describes Alice as a ‘mosaic…completely red in one part and in the next part completely green’, pacily switching moods from the repentant to the gloryingly murderous, and often ‘not really thinking about what she’s doing’. Findlay says that the play works best when not slowed by ponderous subtext that seeks to provide a simplifying or linear explanation for these switches. Thus, she didn’t worry about creating a complicated backstory for Alice: ‘it doesn’t matter in terms of the audience experience’.

Findlay’s previously directed a version of Antigone – reviewed here – for the Olivier Theatre at the National. Some critics hav compared Alice to girl-next-door Clytemnestra, another towering tragic heroine. Yet Findlay argues that though Arden of Faversham ‘riffs on a classical tragic model’, in many ways it ‘is the opposite of a Greek tragedy’. This is because, she explains – returning to the centrality of Alice’s prominence as an unfettered, unpredictable character – the play’s title misleadingly suggests that the ‘dramatic arc’ will be the man’s, Arden’s. In fact, however, Arden ‘remains completely oblivious until the point of his death’ of almost everything that has occurred in the play. Instead, it is Alice on whom the arc of the drama focuses, and she who, sitting in her achingly contemporary high heels to hear her archaic death sentence meted out, experiences the pivotal neoclassical moment of tragic recognition.

Main image: Manual Harlen

Arden of Faversham is at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, from 30th April – 2nd October 2014

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Laura Seymour

Laura Seymour is writing a PhD thesis on cognitive theory and Shakespeare in performance. Her poems have appeared in several journals such as 'Iota', 'Envoi', 'Ambit', and 'Magma'. Her book 'The Shark Cage' won the 2013 Cinnamon Press debut collection prize and is forthcoming in 2015.

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