William Shakespeare’s ‘Lost’ Play Re-Imagined
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon

Cardenio production photo

A re-imagining of a ‘lost play’ by Shakespeare? Sounds impressive and a tad foolhardy. That is, until the ‘lost play’ proves none other than a reworked Double Falsehood, the Shakespeare and Fletcher attribution that caused such a furore when Arden Shakespeare published it in 2010. Now re-imagined as Cardenio by Gregory Doran, this placket-ripping play achieves its RSC-validated status in the ‘Shakespeare’ canon. Cardenio has returned from the grave.

It is not a grave, however, that greets us in the newly reopened Swan Theatre. It is Duke Ricardo of Aguilar’s tomb, complete with ornate iron screen that separates the forestage from the rear and dominated by an ornate black coffin. The coffin is open, its lid propped to one side. A young man enters furtively. With macabre theatrics he lowers himself into the coffin and crosses his arms. This is the duke’s younger son, Fernando. The silence is broken by the arrival of the duke, accompanied by various courtiers and tradespeople, each offering their choice of funerary wares. Fernando escapes unseen.

This is the first we meet a character who dominates this wonderful production: Fernando, the wayward ducal prince whose sexual desires and deviancy know no bounds. Like a youthful Oliver Reid at his ‘Hammer House of Horror’ best, Alex Hassell captures the manic essence of Fernando’s character. Thomas Hughes’s Flashman seems like an effeminized pussycat compared with the testosterone-fuelled psychopathology of Hassell’s Fernando. Every incident in this character’s sordid life is interspersed with moments of self-reflection. Slapping his head or exhaling a manic cough-like laugh, Hassell shows the warped mental process that leads Fernando to, in his mind, ‘guiltless’ seduction and rape. Beware any woman who falls within his sight.

Fernando’s passion is already excited by the humble maiden, Dorotea. Pippa Nixon excels as the young innocent. Seduced in her own home by a predatory aristocrat who offers marriage in exchange for sex, Dorotea is discarded once Fernando’s desires are fulfilled. Dorotea’s journey in disguise, not to avenge the wrongs done to her, but to gain a marriage to the man she loves, is fraught with further danger. Even disguised as a shepherd boy she is not safe, as a lusting Master Shepherd (Timothy Speyer) attempts to rape the unfortunate all over again.

Fernando’s lust for Dorotea assuaged, his attentions turn to Luscinda, the future bride of Cardenio. Luscinda lives in Almodovar in Andalucía with her father, Don Bernardo (Nicholas Day). She is courted by the young, handsome Cardenio, son of their neighbour, Don Camillo (Christopher Godwin). All that remains is for the marriage to be agreed between the two fathers. At Fernando’s behest, however, Cardenio is called to Duke Ricardo’s court, ostensibly to advise on the purchase of horses. In reality, it is to remove Fernando’s rival and offer easier access to the lovely Luscinda. The complex narrative of manipulation and rejection is as resonant today as it must have been four centuries ago.

It is easy to see what both men see in Luscinda. Played with refreshing originality by Lucy Briggs-Owen, Luscinda is a fiery, feisty young woman. Whether biting her lip in anger or frustration, or staring with looks-could-kill sideways glances at the men who trouble her, Briggs-Owen’s Luscinda bristles with pent-up sexual energy. It is unclear if she wants to devour Cardenio or destroy him, her love is so intense. In a heartrending moment when Luscinda is abducted and forced into the same coffin that dominated the stage at the play’s opening, Briggs-Owen offers a young woman in complete meltdown. This is shockingly real and horrifyingly good theatre.

Cardenio is likewise brilliantly conceived by Oliver Rix. A true matinee idol, Rix’s Cardenio is as sympathetic as he is identifiably romantic. This is a character to love and to cheer for. When, after so many hardships, Cardenio meets again with his father, their onstage embrace will soften the hardest heart. After so long wandering destitute in his personal wilderness, Cardenio can return to his parent and his love, and offer his enemy forgiveness for wrongs done and intended.

Special mention must also be paid to the authentic musical talents of Javier Macías (voice) and Luis Carro Barquero (guitar). These Spanish musicians add to the Andalucían flavour of this stunning production. Bill Butler’s lavish costumes and some impressive ensemble singing complete a wonderful evening’s entertainment. Gregory Doran has directed what at first sight might appear a disturbing play, transforming it into a comic and romantic gem. We love the characters as we care how their stories are resolved.

By renaming Double Falsehood as Cardenio, and introducing Cervantean character names into its narrative, the RSC have seamlessly introduced this ‘lost’ play to their Shakespeare completist audiences. There is nothing but good news accompanying this production. Alex Hassell’s astonishing performance aside, this slick, sumptuous, inspirationally cast and magnificently executed Cardenio will be remembered as a great production. Cardenio might reopen the Swan Theatre, and the debate about the Shakespeare canon, but the play ultimately makes twenty-first century RSC history through Doran’s deft directorial skill.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby

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