Tuesday, 2 May 2017
Review The Cardinal
by James Shirley
Les Liaisons Dangereuses
We have to admit our knowledge of theatre history has hitherto jumped from the Revenge Tragedies to the Restoration plays, and left out the drama of the Caroline era. That is, the era when Charles I ruled before Oliver Cromwell engineered Chaxit and closed down the theatres.
So we are indebted to director Justin Audibert and his cast of James Shirley's 1641 tragicomedy for a sure-footed introduction to this witty chessboard of a play, The Cardinal.
Set in a Spanish court, yes, there's a more than an echo of John Webster's The Duchess Of Malfi with a touch of Measure For Measure.
But playwright Shirley turns out to be a real discovery for us. His own chequered background as a Catholic convert and the uncertain times in which he lived produces a shrewd assmilation of past masterpieces, but also a grasp of contemporary politics, a refreshing attitude to women and lucid, pointed verses.
The widowed Duchess Rosaura (Natalie Simpson), beautiful and smart niece of the King of Navarre (Ashley Cook) has been promised that she can marry the man of her choice. Nevertheless she finds herself coerced into a marriage with rough-hewn Columbo (Jay Saighal), the nephew of the scheming Cardinal (Stephen Boxer).
By hook or by crook she determines to marry the handsome Count D'Alvaraz (Marcus Griffiths) and, by legitimate if tricksy means, achieves her goal except that on her wedding day ...
Ah, dear blog reader, you'll have to skidaddle to Elephant and Castle's Newington Causeway and Southwark Playhouse to find out the often murderous twists and turns which have all the cliffhangers of a boxed set thriller.
Simpson (last seen as Cordelia in the RSC's King Lear) is a slender but tough Duchess, as sharp as the silver edge of a rapier matching the cynical wit of Boxer's scarlet-robed Cardinal with a wily but sceptical turn of phrase.
Timothy Speyer also gives good value as the Secretary evaluating a quick-changing situation. Ashley Cook's King has the stillness and dignity of a portrait amidst a fast moving plot when the country was still weighing up the worth of their own monarch.
Shirley himself gained the favour of, without being fully a part of the court of, Charles I and his French wife Henrietta Maria.
There is a particular astuteness and scepticism which marks Shirley, also a grammarian and schoolmaster as well as a playwright, apart from those other playwrights he draws upon, making him appeal to a modern sensibility.
Anna Reid's light gray marble set gives a sense of the echoing halls of the Caroline era where swords clash in Bret Yount's excitingly choreographed fights And surely those were not the chimes of Big Ben we heard in the midst of the chorals in Max Pappenheim's subtle echoing soundscape?
For a new perspective on an era and a remarkably clear-sighted play given a production of elegance and wry humour, we eschew the scarlet for a green light.