The Swan, Stratford upon Avon, Tuesday 20th September, 2011
Controversy about the authorship of Shakespeare’s works comes and goes with every other tide, it seems. Currently, it has all been stirred up again with the coming of specious nonsense film, Anonymous but don’t let me get started on that, please. I’m here to talk about this rather special piece of “theatrical archaeology”, a new version of Bill’s “lost play” Cardenio.
I’m not going to bang on about the process that led to the finished version in performance by the RSC this season. That is well documented elsewhere – the show’s programme gives a fascinating insight into the play’s history and re-imaginings.
What matters to me, whether Shakespeare wrote most of it, all of it, or just scraps of it on the back of cigarette packets discovered down the back of Anne Hathaway’s sofa, is does the play work in production? Is it a good night out at the theatre?
As a text, the play is practically a primer for Shakespeare scholars. Familiar elements that appear in his comedies are here: girl dressed as a boy, pastoral scenes, friends betrayed and reconciled, lovers reunited… I could write reams in a reverse bit of detective work (Ooh, that’s like The Winter’s Tale, and that’s like Timon of Athens…) but that would digress from what I want to say about the show.
Set in seventeenth century Spain, the production is a feast for the senses. Sumptuous period costumes, evocative guitar music, rousing flamenco dancing, pleasing verse and an effective plot – there is even a scene where incense is wafted around the auditorium.
Dominating the action as faithless friend Fernando, the excellent Alex Hassell gives us a villain to love. Ruled by libido, Fernando cannot help himself. He knows he shouldn’t but he also knows he will. “And is the man yet born who would not risk the guilt to meet the joy?” Dashing, Machiavellian and irresistible, he is an endearing baddie right up until the final moment, yet in the end, his conversion and promises are credible. Yet another towering performance this season from one of my favourite players.
Also impressive is Lucy Briggs-Owen as neurotic heroine, Luscinda. In a succession of fabulous frocks, she glides and struts around the stage, giving voice to her insecurities. She gives the character a kind of tic, the subtle, spasmodic waggling of her tongue, a precursor to her decline into suicidal anguish. The psychological insights into her predicament are what we expect in Shakespeare – this is another admirable aspect of Gregory Doran’s production: it all rings true. It might be faux Shakespeare but it works.
There is a freshness to the lines and their delivery. Because there are no familiar speeches, no big moments to anticipate, the delivery comes across as more spontaneous than other plays. There is a real sense of characters thinking things through in their soliloquies, as if the thoughts are occurring to them for the first time. This is a quality rare in productions of Hamlet, say, where the words are all too familiar and the actor has to work hard to make it all sound and feel new.
Veteran actor Christopher Godwin is a delight as Cardenio’s sprightly father, Camillo – his reunion with his son is for me the most touching moment in a very effecting denouement. The entire company is very strong: Pippa Nixon as wronged wench who turns to cross-dressing, Dorotea, carries the emotional weight of the piece, but for me the evening belonged to newcomer Oliver Rix in the title role.
He begins as a charming swain, nervous and frustrated in love, wearing finery and a smart haircut – the quintessential young man. His betrayal by Fernando is such that by the second half of the play he is living wild in the mountains, barefoot, his shirt in tatters, his hair a straggly mess. He is raving bonkers and plaguing the troupe of lowly shepherds who bring their flocks to graze. This is a mad scene to rival the ramblings of Ophelia, but also Cardenio is dangerous, prone to violent outbursts. The action sequences as the shepherds try to restrain this barmy hermit are stirring – one man in the front row almost got himself throttled before Cardenio could be contained. His stoical forgiveness of Fernando at the end is more powerful in its understatement.
With his deep, rich voice, physical presence and sensitivity, Oliver Rix in his professional debut gives us a Cardenio to be remembered and he is definitely one to watch out for in future shows. It would be a pity if the play disappears from the repertoire forever. I found it the strongest production in the RSC’s current season.