Cardenio – Swan Theatre Stratford Upon Avon

The RSC is cannily sitting on the fence with the first new show in its restored Swan Theatre – the non-committal subtitle for Cardenio is Shakespeare’s ‘lost play’ re-imagined.

Now while much scholarly debate will surely ensue over is this play based on Shakespeare’s long lost masterpiece and, indeed, given the amount of hands involved in the script, many a game of ‘who wrote that line’ could be played. Although it is tempting to enter into that debate and audiences will surely form their own view of the authorship of the play, as a review it is perhaps unfair to focus on that provenance.

In deepest Andalucía, Cardenio is deeply in love with Luscinda but needs his father’s permission to marry. Before he gets the chance, he is whisked away to court to serve the Duke’s youngest son, Fernando. Fernando has romantic problems of his own, obsessed as he is with Dorotea although she spurns his advances. Not one to miss an opportunity, though, Fernando soon contrives to steal Cardenio’s love from under his nose and plots to marry her from himself, driving Cardenio from court and into madness.

In a well-crafted mix of tragedy and comedy, the play examines the themes of love, betrayal and revenge with well-drawn characters. At times it is a dark piece, touching on subjects such as rape, death and betrayal but this blackness is contrasted with human interest.

Greg Doran has cast a relatively young and inexperienced cast and it fits well with this rediscovery, feeling somewhat appropriate for a revamped theatre and a historical rediscovery.

Oliver Rix, making an impressive professional stage debut, works well in the title role. Here is a Cardenio torn apart by the perceived betrayal of his love and the actual betrayal of Fernando. It’s a well conceived performance balancing initial bravado with the subsequent decline. Alex Hassell provides Fernando with a richly drawn character, brooding and dark but somehow vulnerable in his calculating plotting.

As the two misled objects of romantic affection Lucy Briggs-Owen and Pippa Nixon give strong and passionate performances. Briggs-Owen’s Luscinda realisation of her inability to halt her fate is wonderfully observed, while Pippa Nixon’s Dorotea has no intention of sitting back and let events overcome her.

Doran directs the piece with pace and flair, making effective use of Niki Turner’s simple but effective set and the Swan Theatre itself. The whole piece is lent an authentic Spanish air by Tim Mitchell’s almost sculptural lighting plot and Paul Englishby’s flamenco inspired music. It provides a visually impressive backdrop for the text with several iconic images; the Día de los Muertos inspired festival, the religious ceremony and the procession of Spanish Monks all help create a world where passion, familial honour and religion combine.

The reconstruction of Cardenio has been a project Doran has been working on for many years and the passion for the material shows. Doran has created a gripping and thought provoking staging of a lost classic. Its authorship may never be conclusively proven but it should be savoured as the opportunity to sit and watch, at the very least, a play of the Shakespearian period, without knowing the script or what happens next.

And in a time when many are familiar with the Bard’s canon before they set foot inside the theatre, Cardenio offers us that rare treat of something unexpected and new.

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