The Cardinal at the Southwark Playhouse review ***

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The Cardinal

Southwark Playhouse, 16th May 2017

Scary picture huh. Southwark Playhouse is a constant whirr of activity serving up all manner of delights across the theatrical spectrum. I just never know what to expect. I am not so shallow as to buy a ticket on spec based on a bit of blurb and a striking image – actually maybe I am.

So I went into this not really knowing what to expect and came out not entirely sure what I had seen. On the face of it this a classic tale of revenge from 1641 (just before Cromwell’s miserablists closed down the theatres) by a chap named James Shirley – a playwright known more in academic than performing circles. Set in C16 (I’m guessing) Navarre at war with Aragon, our widow and heroine is forced into a proposed marriage with blunt, soldier type who happens to be nephew of scheming cardinal who has the ear of the king. But she wants dashing, handsome type and, by virtue of a curious plot device in the form of a misinterpreted letter is able to get dodgy suitor to set her free so she can marry the pretty bloke. The blunt one/nephew doesn’t take too kindly to this. Cue vengeance and the inevitable corpse pile-up.

So frankly it is not the plot that makes this at all interesting. What is fascinating though is the way our man Shirley seems to be taking the p*ss a little out of the revenge tragedy, Duchess of Malfi anyone, and the quite strikingly direct, acerbic text. It is not at all florid. And furthermore our heroine really does possess agency. Obviously she dies, as they all do, but there is a really interesting exploration of her journey here. Moreover the hypocrisy at the heart of our Cardinal’s religion is given a right slagging.

This apparently reflects the changing status of women pre and post Restoration (and no doubt England’s view of the dodgy Catholic foreigner). Now don’t run away with the idea that there is an undiscovered feminist or humanist text here. It’s just that it was interesting for me to see the preamble to the gore-fest portrayed in this way.

The problem though was that having set this up in the first act, and early into the second act, it then seemed to revert to the very type it had sort of subverted, with our now utterly calculating heroine/widow roping in life partner candidate number 4 to dispatch the eponymous cardinal. As for the Cardinal himself, whilst Stephen Boxer does his level best to play the part in the style of an arch John Hurt (I am sure I am not the first to remark on this), there are times when he sounded a bit more Kenneth Williams’s Thomas Cromwell in Carry on Henry.

The other cast members all performed admirably with what they had but the stand out for me was Nathalie Simpson as the lead Duchess Rosaura. She had stood out as Guideria in Molly Still’s gender mash-up RSC Cymbeline last year and was very convincing here. I also note the contribution of Marcus Griffiths as Alvarez here, though he was better as Cloten in the self-same Cymbeline.

So all in all worth seeing. With some very appealing lines and ideas. And a very fine (and slightly alarming) sword fight. It’s just that the plot sort of collapsed inwards, and this left a bit too much for cast and director to do to persuade me this is a vital link between revenge tragedy and Restoration comedy in the history of British theatre and a scandalously neglected gem. I wonder if some genius director out there might find something else of value in Mr Shirley’s oeuvre given his turn of phrase (though I gather this is considered his best work not least by the man himself).

Still great picture. And Southwark Playhouse still wins the prize for diversity of offer hands down. Which is a really good thing if you want people who don’t look like me to come. Which itself is a really good thing. Though in this particular case this probably is only going to appeal to people just like me.

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