Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive could be the alternative title to Arden of Faversham. A piece by an unknown author first appearing in print in 1592, and variously attributed to Shakespeare, Marlowe and Thomas Kyd, has here been revived by the RSC as part of their Roaring Girls season. Whether it earns its place in the quartet of works which make up the season is a bit doubtful; it is neither a particular sparkling text nor a production which ever really takes off.
Arden is a wealthy business man, a Matt Crawford or Mike Baldwin of Elizabethan Kent. His wife Alice is unhappy in her marriage to him (although not through a moral objection to his business practices), very keen on her younger lover Mosby who is dragging himself up from a lower class and together they plot to do away with him. Too squeamish or too canny to be the executioners themselves, they first enlist one splendidly creepy amateur apothecary (Christopher Middleton) and then an honourable servant Michael (Ian Bonar well deserved in his debut season) to be the assailants by heartlessly using Mosby's unworldly sister Susan (beautifully realised by Elspeth Brody) as a prize. Once both these plots fail Alice uses her wiles to persuade Greene, a man disposed of his land by Arden, to ensure that murder is done. A more resourceful and determined man Greene enlists two notorious London thugs, Black Will and Shakebag to help. Too many conspirators and so the downfall of all concerned ensues.
There are elements of humour, although largely derived from some stock caricatures, and cautious forays into black comedy, but these aren't brave enough to be truly shocking. Apart from Susan and Michael there are no characters that one warms to which makes this a tough hour and forty minutes to sit through. It is also unsatisfactory that the pathetic motives for murder are not explored more fully. Will and Shakebag are driven by very large amounts of cash (unpleasant but that does make sense), but we are given little to hate Arden for, unless flooding the market with very tacky cheap Chinese imports is a plausible defence for murder.
Nailing your colours to the mast in programme notes before a production reaches the stage is always a risk and unfortunately although Findlay and her collaborator Zoë Svendsen make a good case for this being a play about the downside of land ownership on society and the negative impact of consumerism, it isn't. Neither is it a good drama about why a woman kills to get out of an unsatisfactory relationship (as opposed to walking away).
Sharon Small, normally such an interesting actor on screen, is given little to do here as Alice Arden other than simper and wobble about on silly high heels. Other characters are costumed to elicit laughs but are sadly two dimensional. Somewhere in the story, based on a real life 16th century crime is an interesting play, but this revival of Arden of Faversham isn't it.