Last Updated on 1st May 2017
Friday 28 April 2017
In recent, fin-de-royaume years, there has been something of a resurgence of public appetite for the lugubrious, gory, cynical, pessimistic dramas of the Jacobean and Caroline periods. Audiences today flock to Webster, Ford, and their ilk, lapping up their hard-nosed portraits of dysfunctional amoralists locked into dismally self-seeking relationships of mutually assured destructiveness. Make of that what you will. But in case you were worried that theatrical managements might run out of such fare to serve up to their keen patrons, rest easy: there’s plenty more where that came from.
And here, at the ever enterprising dramatic hot-house on Newington Causeway is another name to add to the celebrated list of revenge tragedians, James Shirley, whose ‘The Cardinal’ is receiving a handsome revival in the Little space. It was just about the last gasp of this lurid fashion. Emerging in 1641, it teeters on the brink of the volcano that was to erupt the following year with the outbreak of the English Civil Wars between Parliament and the crown. Not only that, the crypto-catholic orientation of the author is everywhere ambiguously hinted at in this snapshot of the machiavellian machinations of an eminence (grise) of the contemporary Roman church in Spain.
Director Justin Audibert has assembled a big cast of 11 to fill this cosy room, and picked only the best: graduates of the RSC, National and other fine establishments. Really, they are a delight. Stephen Boxer, in the title role, has wonderful fun with his splendid rendition of one of God’s courtiers. Natalie Simpson is the giddy and yet also vampish widow fatale, Duchess Rosaura. Her triangular choices for 2nd husband are the romantically doomed Alvarez (Marcus Griffiths) and his bossy, Bosola-esque murderer Columbo (Jay Sieghal). Timothy Speyer is capably ‘on the book’ as Antonio, keeping as much order as he can in her grace’s ‘lively’ household, and Ashley Cook puts in a pleasant turn as a dreamy and out-of-touch King of Navarre (any confusion with the then British sovereign was, I’m sure, entirely deliberate and pointed).
This is a fascinating time in English arts and letters. The theatre stood on the brink of launching itself as an organ of public commentary, and indeed social criticism. No wonder Cromwell lost no time in closing it down as soon as he rose to power (although, naturally, as with all powerful spoil-sports, he continued to enjoy private performances staged for his own particular benefit). But once he and his system were out of the way, the theatres re-opened and all hell broke lose, with a revolution in free expression the like of which had not been seen before. This play locates us at that pent-up moment, when writers like Shirley (here at the end of his career), were kicking at the traces of convention, longing to break free of them. His taughtly argued, streamlined plot, with almost uninterrupted focus on the central action, also directs us towards the intense urgency of the Restoration that was soon to come. Similarly, he eschews the grand speeches and poetic flights of fancy of epic theatre, usually housing his characters in more domestic, private, and simpler interactions.
Nonetheless, the language he writes is also heavily influenced by the then popular habit of borrowing from other sources. Lines and sometimes entire slabs of dialogue are lifted from any number of other dramas. Thus do we get a couple of lovers agreeing on a murder plot, and suddenly hear them speaking the words of Beatrice and Benedick simultaneously declaring their love in ‘Much Ado About Nothing’ while agreeing to murder Claudio. It’s apt. But today it can sound odd: that is, if you’re alive to the references. There is much, of course, that simply passes by the average theatregoer, who does not typically wallow in these waters. In which case, it won’t be a bother.
The busy stage doesn’t allow much room for adornment, and Anna Reid keeps the design simple – a single incense burner, a single step, a single grey wall, cathedral-sized grey flagstones – and Peter Harrison lights it unfussily. The costumes (supervised by Ellen Ray de Castro) are handsome, and Max Pappenheim’s sound cleverly makes us think we are in a huge, echoing space, before bringing the scale of the production down to more intimate size. Bret Yount’s fights are magnificent, including some really flashy fencing in the second act.
Maybe James Shirley isn’t one of the greatest playwrights ever to animate the stages of this country, but he’s far from the worst, and this is probably his best effort. It’s coming back to us at a time of national doubt comparable, in some ways, with the era of its origin. And in its strange metaphor of temporal and spiritual powers, perhaps it still has something of interest to say to us. The last lines at least – just wait till you hear them – will definitely make you leave the theatre believing that he does.
Photo: Mitzi de Margary