Doran’s Cardenio Beats Theobald’s Double Falsehood
The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, July 21, 2011
In the search for new material, Shakespearean scholars and artists have jumped on Lewis Theobald’s Double Falsehood like bedbugs on a futon. Published by Arden Shakespeare last year, the latest edition to the Shakespeare cannon has been widely debated as a possible revision of Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s last collaboration. Unfortunately, when the dust had settled and the flurry of excitement had died down, it was virtually impossible for me to stay excited about this play. It’s awful.
As a text, the plot is full of holes, the dialogue is turgid and belabored, and the characters are thinly drawn caricatures of virtue and vice. On stage, it’s a slog. Great actors could die playing these silly, silly roles, and great directors would struggle to create a cohesive whole out of this mess.
Then, Greg Doran got his hands on it. Emboldened by a season of classic Spanish plays, the Royal Shakespeare Company director took a page from Shakespeare’s book and launched an elaborate collaboration to restore the poetry and vitality to Theobald’s horrid little play. After a stint in Spain with some of the most notable scholars, Doran came back to Stratford-upon-Avon, rifled through some of Fletcher’s Jacobean plays and put together a revision of the revision of the lost Cardenio and put it on stage. Successfully!
Doran’s Cardenio is alternately hilarious, heart-breaking, and grotesque, and while it is still not a play to love or one that deserves to be performed with the best of the Bard’s works, it is a masterful example of what a great director and a willing team can produce.
Moreover, Doran deserves credit not just for rearranging and filling in the text but for directing a production that is full of strong performances.
The action follows the hapless, guileless Cardenio (Oliver Rix) and his love Luscinda (Lucy Briggs-Owen), whose affair is upended by the prurient ambitions of Fernando (Alex Hassell), a duke’s second son. Fernando’s heels are dogged by the lowborn woman he has raped and discarded, Dorotea (Pippa Nixon), and his good brother Pedro (Simeon Moore), a man determined to bring his wayward brother home with some honor still clinging to him. It’s a Jacobean comedy, so no one dies, not even the creep who deserves to, and everyone winds up in a position more or less suitable to their nature.
Rix is currently getting his professional debut in the title role of this exciting new venture, and I’m imagining he peed himself just a little when he got the part. Luckily, he is good as the gentle young lover, though admittedly, there’s not much for him to do for much of the play but look either concerned or sweaty (and sometimes that happens at the same time). Hassell, on the other hand, has a great chewy part, and he seems to relish every nasty morsel. Like Slate Holmgren in the Classic Stage Company’s production of Double Falsehood this winter, Hassell is the strongest actor of the production, mesmerizing and seductive, even at his most disgusting. He’s funny, too, though Rix also gets some nice moments of comedy. Briggs-Owen is a little hard to watch, as she tries too hard to send her crazily fluctuating reactions to the back of the Swan. Nixon gives a more moderate performance, but she’s also playing the character with the least going for her, so by the end you just want to give her a hug and a lolly and wish her luck, regardless of her performance.
On the whole, though, I was drawn in and happy to be there by the end of the third scene. Doran’s arrangement of scenes and vision of the dramatic whole is so careful and complete that where the memory of Double Falsehood peeped through, I could see Doran’s hand deftly tossing a veil on it and turning it into something better. Still, this is not a Shakespearean play, and the tones and themes running through it are more late Jacobean than anything Shakespeare created, even in his collaborations with Fletcher. But if you’re looking for something new to spend your time with, you could do far worse than to spend it with Cardenio.
By the way, if you want a copy of Doran’s text, click through here! You can also get to the box office that way, if you’re interested in tickets. The play runs through October 6, 2011.