Playing without a writer
Writing about Arden of Faversham @ The Emlyn Williams Theatre, Theatr Clwyd from The Bardathon
I was pleasantly surprised, attending Terry Hands' new production of Arden of Faversham last weekend, to find that the play not only chose not to sell itself on its apocryphal status, but that none of the publicity material even acknowledged the long-standing Shakespearean connection. The programme cover boldly stated it was "By Anonymous", and left it at that.
To me, that's really interesting in the theatre, an institution which of course prizes authors. It's not often a truly anonymous play gets put on without at least some guesswork as to the author, and in the case of the Shakespeare Apocrypha this is often used as a publicity device (cf the White Bear's Yorkshire Tragedy and the RSC's Thomas More "By Anthony Munday, William Shakespeare and others").
Listening to the comments around me, it was interesting to hear an audience responding to a play without authorial preconceptions. While I'm sure many of them knew it had been attributed to Shakespeare, I didn't hear anyone discussing this. Instead, people were intrigued as to why something anonymous was being revived and what the director had seen in the play to warrant staging it. People appeared to be interested, rather than pre-judgmental, in a way which I've not really felt among audiences before. I remember a post-show talk following a reading of The Two Noble Kinsmen at the RSC during which audience members seemed only interested in asking about which bits were by which author, assuming that the "best" bits were Shakespeare's.
It's inevitable we judge early modern drama by a Shakespearean standard. The canonical plays are so familiar, and have been so formative on our educational experiences, that we're always going to judge plays by other authors, and especially anonymous or disputed works, according to how far they measure up to a Shakespearean standard; which their relative unfamiliarity will inevitably cause them to fall short of. However, I do feel the anonymising of productions may be a big part of the answer to this. For as soon as a play is put on with a promise, or even indication, of a Shakespearean connection, audiences will expect Shakespeare, and then be disappointed when it's quite different. By de-canonising Arden, Hands allowed the play to stand on its own merits, separate from anyone's authorial canon, a work in its own right. That didn't make the production any better or worse, but it did at least allow it to be something, rather than not-be something. The Shakespeare Apocrypha are, seemingly, forever doomed to not-be Shakespeare, so for that alone, it was lovely to see Arden being presented in its own right.