That for several centuries Shakespeare was suggested as the author of The Tragedy of Master Arden of Faversham is not surprising. As you watch Mobsy, the lover of the dangerous Lady Alice, lament the trap into which he's woven himself — "my golden time was when I kept no gold…" — it is impossible not to think of Lady Macbeth and "out, damned spot".
This early (1592) play is a multi-dimensional, lively effort by a playwright whose identity remains unknown, the Bard having been ruled out by most of the experts. If lacking in the subtle dance of plot, character, and humour of Shakespeare's true works, it is still surprising that this text is not performed more often.
There's a curious modernity in a plot in which we know the ending — the death of Master Arden — but watch the twist and twirls as the deadly adulterous Lady Alice works towards her objective, thwarted by both the fates and in ineptitude of her servants. I'm not spoiling the "authentic" experience here, for every audience-member of 1592 knew the story: the first print version of the script billed it as a "True Tragedie", and the tale of the real-life Master Arden, who was murdered in 1551, was a familiar one, his fate recorded in the then definitive national history, Holinshead's Chronicles.
The White Bear and the Skin and Bone Theatre deserve credit for taking the big step of an August production of a "forgotten classic" – and it deserves to be a success. There's something here of the Agatha Christie — the lively, twisting plot — that should keep summer audiences happily entertained.
The young cast makes a good fist of their work: Zoe Simon as Alice is a taunt-wound spring of passionate desire for the forbidden fruit of Mobsy (Chris New making a fine show of his first professional outing). Simon's fists are permanently half-curled, as if ready to claw and scratch like the wild animal she almost seems. Nicholas Prideaux gives Arden a convincingly careless aristocratic swagger; Franklin (Dominic Tighe) as his considerably smarter, more subtle friend, the only character who can see through Alice, left me thinking this surely was the character that the playwright had considered his own.
The two villains Black Will (Alistair Scott) and Matthew Gammie (ShakeBag) don't always get all of the laughs they might, but manage a nice line in inept, blustering menace. (I thought Gammie's accent was interesting – at moments he almost convinced me he was a 16th-century Thames waterman gone bad.) It is Carl Prekopp as Clarke, the pathetically bespectacled lovelorn artist, who finds the best laughs with a curiously rubbery body language.
Director Samantha Potter keeps up the pace: characters rush back and forth, in and out, and if occasionally there are slightly longer breaks between scenes than fits the pace of the rest, the practical limitations of this small theatre might be reasonable excuse.
Some things, however, are lost in this rush. First and most important of these is the second strand of the play, its surprisingly progressive political element. For Master Arden is not, the playwright makes clear, the innocent victim. In an important scene he is confronted by Dick Reede, the innocent poor peasant dispossessed by Arden's courtly machinations, and treats him with careless contempt. Yet this scene is rushed through here, and the earlier hints of this callous heart not developed. It is only in Franklin's final epilogue, delivered over the body of his friend, that it joltingly emerges.
The possibilities of Alice are also not fully developed. I'm reminded of a recent talk by Nora Machumi, author of Women Novelists and the Eighteenth-Century Stage, in which she suggested that in this period society was discomforted by the thought that lady-like behaviour was something that could be "acted", that didn't necessarily reveal the genuine interior. And you can't but wonder if the 16th-century male might not have looked at Alice, then at the woman beside them – be she his wife or his evening's choice from among the Bankside "geese" – and wondered for a second about her motives and intentions. Yet here Alice is too frantic, insufficiently calculating, to be as scary as she might be.
So this production isn't everything it might be, yet there's still enough to make this much more than an historical curiosity. You might bill it, News of the World-style: True Crime! Hideous Murder! Unfaithful Wife! I can see the handbill on a Fortune Theatre post now.
The production continues at the White Bear, now with online booking, until August 27. Or call 020 7793 9193.