The Cardinal
Venue and town: Southwark Playhouse
Author: James Shirley
Producer: Southwark Playhouse
Director: Justin Audibert
Cast includes: Stephen Boxer, Sophia Carr-Gomm, Phil Cheadle, Ashley Cook, Marcus Griffiths, Patrick Osborne, Jay Saighal, Natalie Simpson, Timothy Speyer, Paul Westwood, Rosie Wyatt.
Dates of run: April 26-May 27
Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes, including interval

 

Authority on literature Terry Eagleton tells us tragedy is unfashionable: “Its tone is too solemn and portentous for a streetwise, sceptical culture”.

If that’s true now, it was also true in 1641 when James Shirley’s finest work was one of the last plays staged in England before Oliver Cromwell’s solemn ban on theatre.

Justin Audibert’s well-judged direction ensures a 21st-century audience perceives the play as a knowing, hilarious send-up and never mistakes it for a poor imitation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Audibert’s clarity and strength, however, aren’t quite enough to gloss over the challenges of Shirley’s plot, which have a modern audience struggling with the tortuous interpretation of letters and with being asked to take at least partly on trust whether characters are good or bad.

As the eponymous anti-hero Stephen Boxer’s Cardinal, resplendent in red as an “overgrown lobster,” convinces us he deserves no human sympathy.

He is locked in a power struggle with Ashley Cook as a passive king, apparently oblivious to the Machiavellian plotting and acting all around him, doubly a joke in a play. And he is just as willing to favour Alvarez (Marcus Griffiths) as the Cardinal’s nephew Columbo (Jay Saighal) to be the husband of the Duchess (Natalie Simpson).

The trouble starts for a modern audience with the swash-buckling Columbo, whose straightforward lack of subtlety could be refreshing and worthy of our respect.

But we are effectively told Alvarez, with his curly, dark mane, is superior to Columbo, whose short hair aligns him, for Shirley’s original audiences, with the short-haired man who closed down the theatres.

Fortunately Simpson’s commanding Duchess manages to be the moral centre of the play in spite of all the contradictions.

Further vindicating the decisions behind this clever, spirited revival, her resourceful ability to hide or present her feelings as required speaks to the complexity of navigating in our own post-truth times.

As a beleaguered woman in a world of men ambitious for power, she can feign deep grief as Columbo goes to war and submissiveness to the Cardinal even after an angry, insubordinate outburst.

At the same time, she brings home the high-seriousness of meting out justice when most around her are willing to settle for expediency.

By the time we get beyond the almost endless twists of the denouement, her death is a source of genuine sorrow while the demise of the Cardinal is cartoon comedy.

Barbara Lewis © 2017.

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Photo Credit: Mitzi de Margary.
Photo Credit: Mitzi de Margary.
Photo Credit: Mitzi de Margary.
Photo Credit: Mitzi de Margary.
Photo Credit: Mitzi de Margary.
Photo Credit: Mitzi de Margary.
Photo Credit: Mitzi de Margary.
Photo Credit: Mitzi de Margary.
Photo Credit: Mitzi de Margary.
Photo Credit: Mitzi de Margary.