“Shakespeare’s ‘Lost Play’ Re-Imagined” runs the tag-line to this, the first full-scale new production in the Swan Theatre since its re-opening. The absence of John Fletcher (let alone Lewis Theobald) from this tag is perhaps inevitable given the RSC’s priorities, although both are fully credited within the wider publicity material. This is the RSC’s first (only?) big crack at Cardenio, and the company has been keen to emphasise the scholarly rationale behind the staging, with blogs and articles detailing the production’s sources in Cervantes, Shelton and Theobald. While I’ve seen and reviewed several productions of Double Falsehood over the last few months, however, it should be noted that this was emphatically NOT a production of Theobald’s play. While Double Falsehood provided the majority of the text, this was an attempt at a conjectural reconstruction of Cardenio, versifying and interpolating material from Don Quixote along with new text and fleshing out the play. This review will inevitably be comparing Cardenio with Double Falsehood, but the two turned out to be interestingly different plays.
The production began with a coffin, positioned before iron gates that divided the stage in two and stood primarily for the gates of Don Bernardo’s house, physically stressing the family divide that relates the play to Romeo and Juliet. Candles burned and Catholic choristers led a group of courtiers in chants behind the gate. Into this sacred environment stepped Alex Hassell as Fernando (the Henriquez character; most were renamed after the Don Quixote source characters), who slowly got into the coffin and lay down, arms crossed. As the funereal party moved to unlock the gates, Fernando quickly left up and exited. Already, he was established as the transgressive figure to watch, with a hint of his tendencies towards self-destruction. As the rest of the cast entered, it became clear that the coffin was being prepared well in advance of the Duke’s death, much to the dismay of elder son Pedro (Simeon Moore, the Roderigo character).
The changes to Double Falsehood made by director Greg Doran and Spanish dramaturg Antonio Alamo were wide-reaching, particularly in the play’s first half. New scenes including an opening spar between the bickering Cardenio (Julio) and Luscinda (Leonora); scenes between Pedro, Cardenio and Fernando at court which were particularly important in establishing the friendship of the latter two men; a scene of further wooing between Fernando and Dorotea (Violante) framed by a Spanish fiesta and, in the second half, a scene set in the nunnery featuring Luscinda’s abduction. There was extensive rewriting throughout the rest of the play, including major changes to both the wedding and the conclusion, which I’ll discuss in their turn. By the same token, Fabian and Lopez were cut (along with any vestiges of a sub- or parallel plot) and, more bizarrely, the scene in which Dorotea employs a servant to help disguise her as a boy was also omitted.
The relationship between Oliver Rix and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Cardenio and Luscinda was established effectively. With the imposing, auditorium-high gates often between them, the nervous Cardenio was often reduced to staring through the bars as Luscinda glided past, invariably accompanied by a Duenna and Maid. Out of his social sphere, and intimidated by Nicholas Day’s blustering Don Bernardo, Cardenio became a Romeo-esque lover, comically floundering about for lines of poetry and making grand promises, while quailing beneath Luscinda’s steely gaze. Initially, I deeply disliked Briggs-Owen’s very modern Luscinda, who stood with hands on hips, scornful derision and a general “talk to the hand” confidence that ill suited the formal period setting. While these mannerisms and expressions felt crass, it did help establish the difference in their demeanours, and as the play went on Briggs-Owen settled into a far calmer and more appropriately emotional vein. She was a dynamic figure who both challenged Cardenio and gave him confidence in her proactive approach; and she clashed dramatically with her obstinate father while Cardenio looked meekly on. This conflict became the production’s early focal point, as the wilful Luscinda refused to yield to parental control yet struggled to find ways out.
This culminated in the wedding scene, which aimed to turn the Cardenio/Luscinda relationship into the focal point. Cardenio arrived, disguised in the Citizen’s cloak, and Luscinda showed him her dagger and pushed him protesting into a corner, ordering him to hide. This suited the relationship already established, with Cardenio allowing Luscinda to take the lead. As the wedding party entered and Luscinda was led to her new husband, however, she grabbed for the dagger but was unable to find it. The priest began the vows and a distraught Luscinda, not knowing what to do with her plans thwarted, ended up stuttering a “Yea”, then fainted as Fernando placed a ring on her finger. She was carried out, and the wedding broke up. Left alone, Cardenio soliloquised about his own passivity and Luscinda’s cruelty, before leaving quietly to run mad in the forest. I found this unconvincing and dramatically inert; in Double Falsehood, events come to a head in a moment of extreme violence during which Julio is ejected from the church, and madness becomes a passion borne out of rejection and the betrayal of a friend. This far more considered “madness” didn’t chime with his subsequent ravings, which dwelled primarily on the Fernando treachery; the introduction of a complication between the two lovers was unnecessary and was not addressed in their reunion in the final scene.
The least adapted roles were those of the two fathers, who retained their comic function (particularly Christopher Godwin’s Camillo) but with a great deal of pathos, particularly as they bewailed their losses to Pedro. The scene of Bernardo’s flouting of Camillo was a particular joy, with Day relishing every word in a slow, sarcastic delivery that brought on an apopleptic fit in Godwin. The two eventually resorted to pushing each other pompously, before Bernardo distracted Camillo by pointing behind him, then running to the gates which he locked in Camillo’s face. Pedro later discovered Camillo still standing before the gates, rattling his stick against them in fury. The compact between the three, little adapted from Theobald’s text, was a high point of dignity that set up the “quest” element of the second half neatly.
A new scene between Cardenio and Fernando saw the two of them, following a riding session, telling each other about their respective loves. Hassell’s wonderful Fernando channelled Lord Flashheart (of Blackadder), making of the Duke’s son an unpredictable, tempestuous, loud cad. Jumping onto a vaulting horse, he boasted of Dorotea and showed unashamed interest in Cardenio’s description of Luscinda. This spoiled lord showed his colours when Cardenio advised him against pursuing Dorotea, jumping down from the horse and advancing on his friend in a spirit of anger, before laughing and embracing him. Everyone, Pedro included, was cautious around Fernando, wary of his temper and flammable humour.
Particularly interesting was how funny Fernando was. His charismatic excesses brought the audience onside, and excused to some extent his brash behaviour. This became hugely complicated as the wooing of Dorotea commenced. At first it was purely comic, including overwrought instructions to confused musicians and a pleading tone to Dorotea (appearing at a balcony) that rendered him somewhat pathetic. The humour of the character, however, did mean that the audience continued laughing even as he asserted his right to her body and announced he would bribe her maid, keeping it firmly within a comic vein. The new seduction scene (which followed his conversation with Cardenio at court, and was thus separated in time) was framed by a fiesta featuring masked revellers carrying large sexual puppets that were tossed together on a blanket and left in a mess of limbs on the ground, making explicit the tone of Fernando’s mission. Yet the scene itself made the nature of their interaction extremely ambiguous. He sneaked into her room and, initially, attempted to force himself on her, despite her anger and pleading. As they talked in the heat of fear and passion, promises were exchanged on both sides, and she handed him marriage as a solution, which he accepted. The scene closed as he began to kiss her and she (difficult to see) appeared to stop resisting. The overall impression was one of consensual sex under false pretences, rather than enforced rape. This was emphasised in a small but significant textual change as Fernando left. Where in Double Falsehood he says “True, she did not consent; as true she did resist, but still in silence all,” here he said “True, she did consent…” While the intent was clearly to attempt to make Dorotea’s pursuit of Fernando palatable to a modern audience, it had the effect of reducing the extent of Fernando’s crime; as did the delay of his pursuit of Luscinda until after another interpolated scene where Cardenio showed him Luscinda’s house and the maid herself, at only which point did Fernando decide to woo her for himself.
While I happen to think the stronger rape narrative implied by Double Falsehood offers a more challenging and important set of issues, this extremely significant change did bring the play more into line with the Cardenio story and Jacobean sensibilities. Further, it allowed Fernando to gradually increase in maliciousness rather than peak in his first appearances. His overpowering presence and sycophantic deferrence to Bernardo were loathed by Luscinda, and the nunnery scene was especially effective. An oddly comic nun offered some pedantic banter with Luscinda, which offset the arrival of the coffin. Luscinda (the report of whose flight was passed over quickly at the end of the first half) then sat before the coffin, assuming it was Cardenio but afraid to look. Suddenly, the coffin lid flew off (to screams from the audience) and Fernando emerged, clasping his hand over her mouth and forcing her into the coffin, inside which she continued to shout while the nuns were trapped behind locked gates and Pedro looked on aghast. This most significant instance of Fernando’s violence built nicely towards the play’s concluding action.
Simeon Moore’s Pedro offered a powerful contrast to his brother throughout. While his portentous tone sometimes grated, he offered a tremulous and conscientous noble, bewildered by the acts of treachery he saw about him and with a fury that caused him to shake as he addressed Fernando in the final scene. Moore found tremendous personality and complexity in this man, who initially attempted to ignore Violante in her page outfit and struggled with his own conscience regarding Luscinda.
The second half began with autumn leaves spread about the stage, the gates removed and a reflective backdrop giving the impression of wide open spaces. The shepherds, dressed in winter clothes and sitting in a work attitude, gossipped and joked together without becoming openly comic. The gentle pastoral atmosphere came from a director who understands Fletcher, and provided an elegiac tone for Cardenio’s mad scenes. Dishevelled and sore, his distractedness oscillated between moments of direct action (such as his recognition of “Fernando” in the face of the Second Shepherd”) and wandering speeches which drew him aimlessly among the locals, who watched him with caution bred from familiarity. The comic action of these scenes included an attempt to leap at a “Fernando” in the audience, which saw Cardenio caught in mid-air by two of the shepherds; and the picking up of the Second Shepherd by the nose, a battle which resulted in all of the cast being knocked to the stage. Timothy Speyer’s Master was a short and lecherous villain, who couldn’t keep his hands off his boy and came very close to raping Dorotea before Roderick’s interruption.
The two shepherds who stayed with Cardenio were fleshed out nicely with conversation and ideas of taking him to the nearest town to be cured. They faded into the background as he listened to the song of Pippa Nixon’s Dorotea. Nixon made for a strait-laced Dorotea, pleading and self-sufficient but continually scared by the advances of men. Following her song and descent to the stage, she took out a dagger and prepared to kill herself, but was prevented by Cardenio. The character’s earnestness was well-played by Nixon, and her earlier interactions with Fernando displayed her quick thinking and fast talking.
The final scene pulled together the stories to mixed effect. Set in what appeared to be a Spanish bar, with servants setting up tables and women beating blankets, it made for an odd environment for the Duke and fathers to set up court in. For the most part, the action played out as in Double Falsehood, with Pedro reintroducing Luscinda to her father (realised in a simple but touching embrace) and Fernando to his father. Fernando humbled himself appropriately and apologised for his faults, while the Duke castigated him and instructed Luscinda on obedience. Dorotea was brought in as Florio and told her story, to the belief of all except the outraged Fernando, then left to effect her change. At this point began the extensive rewriting.
Cardenio was brought in, still dishevelled, and stood before the group. Fernando stepped forward, and began his denial before recognising him. He drew slowly closer and knelt before his wronged friend… and then lashed out, beating and attempting to kill him. The two fought, and Cardenio eventually threw Fernando against some chairs at the back of the room. Cardenio was then reunited with his father and THEN Luscinda, reversing the order. As the lovers kissed, Fernando reappeared, felled Cardenio and grabbed Luscinda. At this point Dorotea re-entered and dissuaded Fernando from further disgrace with a long speech. This ending was undeniably more interesting than the straightforward and carefully stage-managed reunions of Double Falsehood, but jarred; following Fernando’s apology to his father, the attempt to kill Cardenio in the presence of the Duke made no sense (unless Fernando was far madder than he was played) and felt like an unnecessary attempt to spice up the climax and give Dorotea more to do. What this effectively did was change the cause of Fernando’s repentance from a series of small humiliations (the return of Luscinda, his humbling before the joke, the revelation of Dorotea, the reunion with Cardenio) to a single speech by Dorotea, which was unconvincing and overly simplistic. However, it introduced a welcome note of ambiguity into the reunions, as the joy of the fathers was marred by the quiet and troubled faces of Luscinda and Cardenio, both abused by Fernando, and the tentative attempts of Fernando himself to apologise to Dorotea.
A final Spanish dance closed the production on a strong and musical note (and mention should be made of Paul Englishby’s gorgeous Spanish-inflected live score, whose effect on the overall production cannot be adequately articulated nor understated by me). My discussion of the textual adaptation should not detract from the fact that this was a joyous, well-performed and confident production. While some of the changes were welcome and some were unnecessary, very few actually diminished the play, and as a putative reconstruction of Cardenio it was intelligent, accessible and designed to appeal to the widest possible crowd, without reducing the action to mere Shakespearean parallels. What is most important is that the combination of Theobald’s play and Cervantes’s story worked extremely well on the Swan stage and made the strongest case yet for the value of Double Falsehood to the modern repertory, in being the primary source for a thoroughly enjoyable entertainment.