Union Theatre, London SE1
Opened 21 January, 2011

The authoritative Arden edition of Shakespeare’s plays last year added Double Falsehood to its list of published works. Although it survives in a 1727 “revision” by Lewis Theobald, it is believed by many to be a version of Cardenio, a now-lost play by Shakespeare and John Fletcher (with whom he also collaborated on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen). In April, the Royal Shakespeare Company will present a “re-imagining” of Cardenio based on Theobald’s text, but they have been scooped by small independent company MokitaGrit, which has staged it “as is” on the London fringe.
It is possible, without detailed scholarly examination, to imagine one can detect the hand of Shakespeare in this work, but barely, and workaday Shakespeare only. There is little poetry in the verse, and little imagination in the treatment of a narrative episode from Don Quixote. The Duke’s evil son Henrique gets his friend Julio (Cardenio in Cervantes’ original) out of the way by sending him to court so that Henrique can force his own marriage to Julio’s beloved Leonora; the doubleness of the falsehood lies in that Henrique has already seduced, raped and abandoned Leonora’s servant Violante.
The plot is recounted and advanced in bog-standard Jacobean-drama style, with only one or two exceptions. When Violante (Jessie Lilley, in one of the strongest performances of the evening) poses as a boy, a number of characters see through her disguise. There may also be an echo of Shakespeare’s late dramas in all the reunions towards the end of the play; however, this is followed by a public naming-and-shaming scene after the manner of Measure For Measure but much more incredible. Henrique’s repentance and marriage to Violante might just have been carried off if Adam Redmore did not play him throughout, and still at this juncture, as a tittering, multiple-personalitied psycho. Director Phil Willmott is more than experienced enough to know that no such rationalisation is needed for period villainy.
Willmott sets his production on a bare stage in vaguely 1950s costume in order to distract as little as possible from the play. Su Douglas finds some plausibility in the unstable loyalties of Leonora’s mother, almost the only character who does not at some point don a Franciscan habit. It is given a worthwhile “curio” production, but this play is unlikely ever to be fully embraced into the Shakespearean canon.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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