CARDENIO
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 27 April, 2011
***

Earlier this year, the London fringe saw a production of Lewis Theobald’s 1727 play Double Falsehood, which Theobald claimed to be a revision of Cardenio, an otherwise lost play by Shakespeare and John Fletcher. Gregory Doran for the RSC has “re-imagined” the play, returning characters’ names and relationships to their originals in the episode of Don Quixote from which the story is derived and adding scenes missing in Theobald’s version. The bizarre thing about the result is that it somehow feels less Shakespearean than that recent London revival.

Numerous aspects of the plot recall elements of assorted Shakespeare dramas, principally the climactic scene in which the villainous Fernando’s duplicity – the double falsehood against both Dorotea whom he seduced and then abandoned, and his friend Cardenio whose beloved Luscinda he then targets – is revealed in a staged series of petitions before the Duke, in the style of Measure For Measure. But to say that a dramatic touch is reminiscent of the Bard’s work is not to say it is cut from the same fabric. Time and again I found myself having to concentrate simply to listen to the unmemorable verse or to care what happened to these two-dimensional characters.

Many of the principals seem immature in a most un-Shakespearean way. Oliver Rix’s Cardenio puts visible effort into pressing his suit with Luscinda and her father, and is then childishly proud of the summons to the ducal court with which Fernando gets him out of the way. Alex Hassell makes this role the focus of the production, yet the only consistent note is Fernando’s Blair-like conviction that everything he does is at least necessary and usually noble; Hassell is, too, a more comically than villainously gifted actor, which further detracts from the weight of the evening. Pippa Nixon’s Dorotea weeps away the second half in rural exile (disguised as a young shepherd, natch), then reclaims the hand of her still-beloved Fernando at the end. This is not complexity, it is convenience and muddle. The most human figure is Christopher Godwin as Cardenio’s father, whose seriocomic bluntness suggests a slightly better-disposed Lord Capulet. Spanish costuming and score add an air of authenticity which is geographical rather than dramatic, still less Shakespearean. In January I concluded that Double Falsehood will not become a canonical work; nor will this version.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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