FringeReview UK 2017
Justin Audibert directs the Troupe company in James Shirley’s 1641 tragedy The Cardinal. This play was staged once since then – in the 1660s. Staged by Anna Reid in Spartan simplicity with Peter Harrison’s clean lighting and sound design with liturgical-style choral music by Max Pappenheim, this runs at the Southwark Playhouse’s Little Studio till May 27th.
This is a stunning rediscovery, brought by director Justin Audibert and the ever-adventurous Troupe to Southwark Playhouse’s Little Studio. James Shirley’s 1641 tragedy The Cardinal was staged once since Civil War shut the theatres the following year – in the 1660s. Staged by Anna Reid in Spartan simplicity in period costume with Peter Harrison’s clean lighting and sound design with liturgical-style choral music by Max Pappenheim (a bit Allegri Miserere remixed by John Tavener, the volume almost distractingly high), it would grace the RSC’s Swan.
It’s good the last tragedy from the long line of Elizabethan Jacobean and Caroline dramatists is an absolute masterpiece, an original take on The Duchess of Malfi with a comic prologue by the eponymous Cardinal himself. ‘I wanted a comedy’ he wheedles in dazzling scarlet. Stephen Boxer’s insinuating voice, rasping asides and silken traps remake the most vividly-realized prelate of the period. ‘A poet’s art is to lead on your thought through subtle paths and workings of a plot. I will say nothing positive: you may think what you please.’ This prose is astonishingly modern. Happily there’s a role that overshadows even his: the Duchess Rosaura.
Though his 1637 comedy Hyde Park at the RSC with Fiona Shaw has found favour, this lean two hours is exhilarating. It’s languished like most of Shirley’s work – despite his being the best-rated dramatist of the era. Known for the poem ‘The glories of our blood and state’ there’s much more memorable Shirley in the blank verse here: lucid, sinewy, and in the King of Navarre’s convolutions writhing and breathing colour like a snake.
Boxer’s Cardinal wants Natalie Simpson’s young widow Duchess Rosaura to marry his nephew Columbo (Jay Saighal) a choleric if valiant general. She’s strikingly independent though – something 1630s play-going women applauded, especially free widows. Rosaura desires D’Alvarez (Marcus Griffiths), but the weak King of Navarre Ashley Cook (who also produces) trims to the overbearing Cardinal – a thankless role Cook knows exactly how to equivocate. However mercurial Rosaura twitches from tears to air-punching joy as she tricks Columbo into releasing her to marry D’Alvarez. Simpson’s switches are both breathtaking and truthful, every eye-flash and face-swivel registering passion and sudden numbness.
Confronting the Cardinal Simpson’s thrilling in her exit: …’behold yourself/In a true glass…. before the short-haired men/Do crowd and call for justice.’ Robes still ruffling in her sweeping-out he wonders: ‘This woman has a spirit that may rise/To tame the devil’s’. It recalls a similar stand-off in The White Devil. Boxer though edges it with an irony musing humour with sadistic plotting, urging on Columbo: ‘Some way to snatch his honour from this flame: All great men know, the soul of life is fame.’ Boxer’s concentration too on items like D’Alvarez’ hair curls (obligingly answered by the lithe Griffiths) show actor and writer at one nailing significant detail.
Columbo returns to bloody revenge. Boxer’s great aside here rasps that some answer was called on, then to Columbo ‘if less bloody’ one of so many inflections keeping this Cardinal comically airborne, taking nothing from the darkness. It’s an unique achievement, Boxer touching Iago in confiding sibillance. The subtlest scene comes with the king’s hand-wringing to-and-fro mitigating and monstering Columbo, whilst courtiers like Patrick Osborne’s Xavier and Paul Westwood’s Medrano lay odds to pardon or punishment (also memorable as commentators: ‘There’s treason in some hearts, whose faces are/Smooth to the state.’) . Columbo’s rash king-piquing decides it – for a moment. Only dismissed colonel and friend of D’Alvarez, Phil Cheadle’s fine, chisel-voiced champion Hernando, can aid Rosaura as she feigns madness to plot revenge. ‘Do I not walk upon the teeth of serpents?’ she hisses. The Cardinal though, infinitely revengeful, plots too – including carnality.
Archbishop Laud refused the young Shirley preferment in the church because of an unsightly mole. Converting to Catholicism, Shirley didn’t scruple to take delicious revenge, evoking an acrid whiff of Laud, destined for the scaffold.
Shirley’s tropes are worthy of better-known dramatists, and The Cardinal boasts ‘perspective’, both a notional painted backdrop and looking-glass – Rosaura’s already deployed this traditional feminine Vanitas back on the Cardinal. But as the king sadly reflects at the end ‘none have more need for perspectives than kings’ and this theatrical intelligence – beautifully pointed up by Audibert on the shifts we enjoy in this intimate space – realize Shirley’s vision as audience prod: myopic weakness lets corruption thrive. It’s this active dance of characters that vivifies Shirley’s metaphor. And if we didn’t grasp it, a troupe of masked players dance on with a trunk, the single prop of the play.
Timothy Speyer’s Secretary Antonio is a delight. Loyal to Rosaura he nevertheless lusts after loose lady-in-waiting Celinda (pertly observed Rosie Wyatt) whose own frank lust for Columbo has to find a rapid substitute after his exit leaves her compromised. Again uniquely perhaps each character enjoys an aside and Speyer’s rank with the two leading roles in variety and comic register.
Sophia Carr-Gomm’s loyal lady-in-waiting Valeria is particularly fine vocally inhabiting her thought and conveying warm presence towards her mistress – someone who should enjoy the same classical exposure as more experienced cast-members. The lustrous Griffiths speaks resonantly if with the faintest chopping of verse, doubling as lackey Antonio later. Cheadle’s baffled Mars incarnate, projects heroic temper in anti-heroic times contrasting with the voluble furies of Saighal’s Columbo. A near-uniform excellence still finds Boxer and Simpson outstanding: their playing simply could not be bettered – and Boxer’s unblinking eyes have to be seen.
This was one of three plays rejected in a pitch for the RSC in favour of Ford’s Love’s Sacrifice in 2015. It’s good we’ve had both but this is the finer play, revived by several RSC regulars to the same sheen and snap. Boasting a first-rate cast this superbly-wrought production measures its consummate leannness to the verse. We need more Shirley and this production should enjoy a longer run next time. It’s a must-see even for those not normally interested in the period. Its plots and words still wound the air.