Shakespeare’s ‘Lost Play’ re-imagined
at the Swan Theatre, Wednesday 20th April 2011
The performance reviewed was a preview performance. Press night is Wednesday 27th April.
In a recent directing workshop, I was given one sterling piece of advice to remember when trying my hand at directing: “You’ll never be as good as Shakespeare”. What’s beautiful about Greg Doran’s so-called ‘re-imagining’ of Shakespeare’s Cardenio is that in all the publicity and in performance it never professes to be as good as anything the Bard could have written, constantly taking a tongue-in-cheek look at the classic Shakespearean comedy.
Piecing together pieces of Lewis Theobold’s Double Falsehood (which was supposedly based on a manuscript of Fletcher and Shakespeare’s Cardenio), Shelton’s translation of Don Quixote and Doran’s own ingenuity, the tone of Cardenio is never able to shake off the feeling of being a cross-centuries collaboration. Some lines feel solidly Elizabethan (“There’s not a maid whose eye with virgin gaze/ Pierces not my guilt”), but elsewhere relatively modern (“There is a woman, sir, there is a woman”). This doesn’t matter, however, for the themes of the play – those of consent and deceit, favourites of Shakespearean comedy – go hand in hand with the atonal language.
It is a perfect formula for a Shakespearean comedy; two men fighting over one woman, even though one of the men is already married. Through disguise and treachery they eventually get what they want and everyone lives happily ever after. The character of Dorotea – the second woman – is questionable, as she returns to the man who abused her in the style of Hero, but the strong speeches she is given in the second half of the play remedy that somewhat.
Doran’s joyful production revels in the references to other comedies while taking a look at the darker undertones of religion in the play. Paul Englishby’s remarkable score reverberates around the small space, taking us from brazen ritual to quiet prayer. Niki Turner’s semi-reflective set, lit by Tim Mitchell, facilitates these tonal changes, and the strip of mirror revealed at the back of the stage suggests we are only peeking momentarily into the history behind this lost play.
The four young leads all impress. Pippa Nixon as Dorotea copes well with a difficult role, gaining confidence later in the play and showing a strong resolve, even if the script doesn’t. Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Luscinda, the object of the two male leads’ desires, is charmingly innocent, being won over by Oliver Rix’ exuding charisma in his professional debut as Cardenio. Most impressive is Alex Hassell in the role of the loveable antagonist Fernando, a deeply flawed character who wins our empathy through hilarious asides and looks to the audience. Among the strong ensemble, Christopher Ettridge and Christopher Godwin both stand out as the two surprisingly liberal (for Shakespeare) fathers.
Fittingly for the RSC’s Fiftieth Birthday season, Cardenio offers a meta-theatrical look at Shakespearean comedy, straddling five centuries and being fully aware of its roots. It’s unlikely to become part of the canon anytime soon, but it’s no doubt a production which Shakespeare would be able to watch and recognise as something he had a hand in creating.