The name of playwright James Shirley could certainly never be described as a household one. His career was blighted by historical disruptions such as an outbreak of the plague, the Great Fire of London and the turbulent English Civil War. On the basis of Southwark Playhouse’s production of The Cardinal, history has robbed audiences of a very fine playwright indeed.
His most celebrated play, The Cardinal, is set in the kingdom of Navvare in 1641. The Duchess Rosaura reneges on her arranged marriage with nobleman Don Colombo to marry the dashing Count Alvarez. Colombo reacts with anger and vengeance, and yet remains protected because of his status within the Court. Rosaura plots revenge, whilst she herself is being pursued by a morally bankrupt Cardinal.
The Cardinal seems remarkably ahead of its time; it is a sharp satire of politics and nepotism and also gives its female characters far more agency and power than other tragedies at the time (although the Duchess may have not been played as a woman in the 1640s!). Much of the excellent cast has extensive background with the RSC and they make great work out of Shirley’s evocative and lyrical text.
Whilst it is packed full of tension, it is also at times very funny, mainly due to the double-crossing Cardinal and the lovestruck secretary Antonio, who both provide a humorous running commentary on proceedings. Although the first twenty minutes are a bit flat, the second half builds up to a fascinating climax; with multiple twists and turns along the way.
It is a strong ensemble production; Shirley creates a range of complex and believable characters that gives all the cast a chance to shine. It is performed in the round, meaning the characters can literally circle around each other as they scheme, aided by a pacy script and plot.
Stephen Boxer manages to be enjoyably both acerbic and wicked as the Cardinal, whilst Phil Cheadle also impresses, bringing a handsome ruggedness to the valiant Hernando. Natalie Simpson makes for a believable and vulnerable Duchess, who stoically endures multiple torments at the hands of the Court.
Max Pappenheim’s choral soundtrack provides a fitting backdrop for the majesty and opulence of the Court. Bret Yount’s fight direction is also worthy of comment; whilst swords on stage can often look awkward and choreographed, this is a definite exception. Yount’s direction is exhilarating, made all the more powerful in such an intimate space.
This is a highly underrated play that is getting a thoroughly deserved revival, hundreds of years since its last performance. It takes its time in getting going, but once it does it provides a thrilling and dramatic evening.