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Double toil and trouble

‘Shakespeare’s Lost Play Re-imagined’, thus Gregory Doran’s subtitle to Cardenio. The play appears to have been lost in the Globe fire of 1613, but why should the RSC’s chief associate director have wanted to ‘re-imagine’ and stage it as the inaugural production in the refurbished Swan?

14 May 2011

12:00 AM

14 May 2011

12:00 AM

‘Shakespeare’s Lost Play Re-imagined’, thus Gregory Doran’s subtitle to Cardenio. The play appears to have been lost in the Globe fire of 1613, but why should the RSC’s chief associate director have wanted to ‘re-imagine’ and stage it as the inaugural production in the refurbished Swan?

‘Shakespeare’s Lost Play Re-imagined’, thus Gregory Doran’s subtitle to Cardenio. The play appears to have been lost in the Globe fire of 1613, but why should the RSC’s chief associate director have wanted to ‘re-imagine’ and stage it as the inaugural production in the refurbished Swan? There was nothing to go on other than a dubious trail leading back from a 1727 effort by one Lewis Theobald (Double Falsehood) through an MS ‘conceivably’ adapted by Sir William Davenant (who gave himself out as Shakespeare’s ‘lost’ son) from a play by Fletcher and Shakespeare, performed at Court in 1612/13, and which ‘may’ have been based on an episode in Don Quixote. This is already too much for most of us to take in. Literary detective work is fun, but its publication upon a prominent Stratford stage another matter.

For nearly three hours you were struggling to keep up with a story in which Cardenio, a Hugh Grant lookalike (Oliver Rix), loses his girl (Lucy Briggs-Owen) to his aristocratic best friend (Alex Hassell). This latter Don Juan has also been fooling around with a gullible young farmer’s daughter, Dorotea (Pippa Nixon).

After episodes of madness in the mountains and an abduction from the inevitable Spanish convent, Hugh Grant regains his sanity and his girl while the repentant villain has to honour his vows to Dorotea. There is, of course, sillier stuff upon the stage but it can only keep you awake with the help of a sparkling text. The audience did discover the odd joke among the lines, responding with palpable relief rather than any real sense of pleasure.


Doran goes all out for a Spanish flavour with expensive-looking costuming, stamping dance routines and even a folkish entertainment with a pair of giant puppets (presumably the traditional straw pelele effigies so memorably depicted by Goya). Pippa Nixon was heartfelt and touching as Dorotea but Lucy Briggs-Owen’s Luscinda too blondly British and commonly spoken to be convincing in a Spanish context. The best came from Nicholas Day and Christopher Godwin as the embattled fathers, the latter a wicked impersonation of the classic image of Don Quixote. Hopefully others may find more pleasure in the show, but wouldn’t the effort and expense have been better spent on reviving another authentic play from the Spanish Golden Age?

Would that I could report more cheerfully on Michael Boyd’s Macbeth, the inaugural new show in the transformed RST. Given the reputation of the Scottish Play this was indeed a provocative choice, and the ill-luck attendant upon it has hit back.

When the play begins we’re in a smashed-up church with piles of rubble and tall broken windows, a programme note suggesting this represents the Jacobethan desecration of Catholic imagery. Three lady cellists on a high ledge at the rear supply lugubrious music. Duncan enters dressed as a Pope. Three children flown in on meathooks sing an ‘Agnus Dei’ (ah, yes, the Witches at last — their roles cut back to the marrow). Macbeth crosses himself and the children run off laughing.

The Thane of Ross is got up like a chaplain. He sings a ‘Pie Jesù’ before baptising and anointing the blond Macbeths as king and queen under a stream of water. Malcolm is later seen in a long white cassock, presumably symbolic of his penitential self and fitness to assume the crown? At the very end there’s a Catholic restoration when the children open shutters to reveal saintly images in the refashioned stained glass. Had someone forgotten that Shakespeare was skating on exceedingly thin ice when, in 1606, his play about the murder of a Scottish king was given for the very first time before the staunchly anti-Catholic James I?

As Macbeth, Jonathan Slinger recapitulates the spitting energy and crumple-legged mannerisms of his Richard III from Boyd’s Histories cycle, but fails to deliver on the Hamlet-like self-doubt and introspective power that should humanise a role that’s otherwise grotesque. This Macbeth is so crazy that his guilt even encompasses imagining himself actually murdered by Banquo — thus the sensationally crude ending to the first half. No surprise in a Boyd production that this isn’t by any means Banquo’s final appearance, nor that the dead resurrect to see themselves avenged.

Up to a point this is amusing, but not so far as a Porter who scares us witless when his monster fun fireworks unexpectedly explode. This would have been no joke a mere year after the Gunpowder Plot. No joke either that it was the offstage pyrotechnics for Henry VIII in 1613 that burnt Shakespeare’s beloved Globe to the ground. And with it the script of the original Cardenio. It could be time for the RSC’s resident directors to note the inadvertent warnings in their unfortunate opening productions.


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