The Cardinal by James Shirley, directed by Justin Audibert for Troupe at Southwark Playhouse, 2 May 2017
Reviewed by Peter Malin
References to the play are to James Shirley, The Cardinal, ed. by E. M. Yearling, Revels Plays Series (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1986)
Conventionally-staged productions of early modern plays, in period costume, have made something of a comeback this year. First we had the opening two productions of the RSC’s Roman season, and now this staging of Shirley’s 1641 tragedy in the claustrophobic black box of Southwark Playhouse’s studio space, The Little (the clue’s in the name). Such presentational conservatism is, to this reviewer at least, something of a relief after having seen so many of my favourite plays rendered largely incomprehensible in radical productions more concerned with the director’s vision than with fidelity to the text or respect for the audience. Among such productions, I shudder to recall Melly Still’s Cymbeline or Maria Aberg’s White Devil (not Shakespeare’s or Webster’s, you may note), both at the RSC. There is, however, a danger in staging the plays ‘straight’: the result can be bland, anodyne museum-pieces that preserve them in aspic. As Matt Trueman observed in his review of The Cardinal, Audibert’s ‘plain-stage, period dress revival […] is equivalent to handling the script with white gloves, wary of leaving the slightest fingerprint on it. A hands-off approach is understandable, giving a long-lost play a full and fair hearing, but ultimately unhelpful’. My own reservations about the production, though, are differently focused.
Shirley’s rarely performed Caroline tragedy has an added frisson on account of its historical positioning within a year of the closing of the theatres on the outbreak of civil war. It’s a strange piece, a world away from the dramatist’s startlingly modern comedies such as Hyde Park. Harking back to the violent delights of Jacobean revenge tragedy, it also reaches forward, somewhat surprisingly, to the overblown villains of Victorian melodrama. Fifteen years earlier, Shirley’s former friend and colleague, Philip Massinger, had brought to life an archetypal Victorian villain, Sir Giles Overreach, in A New Way to Pay Old Debts – a play that, appropriately, found renewed popularity on the nineteenth-century stage. Now Shirley was to overreach Overreach in his portrait of the eponymous if unnamed Cardinal, outdoing too, in lip-smacking relish, his Websterian precursors. On the face of it, it seems odd to find such a machiavellian, morally corrupt, murderous Catholic prelate at the centre of a play penned by a dramatist who had converted to Catholicism over twenty years previously. The play is intriguing, to say the least.
In fact, as Audibert’s handsomely-mounted production made clear, the play’s dramatic focus is not the Cardinal but the Duchess, Rosaura. While he, wrapped in his voluminous scarlet robes, may be the play’s flashy, hissable centrepiece, she is its beating emotional heart. She is both embodiment and object of desire, protagonist and victim, revenger and revengee. Unlike her doppelgänger Duchess of Malfi, with whom her narrative trajectory has many parallels, Rosaura is allowed to survive – just – to the end of the play. Her agency constantly forwards the plot and her powerful voice challenges and shames the corrupt and hypocritical political establishment, as in her gripping confrontation with the Cardinal in Act 2 scene 3.
You turn the wrong end of the perspective
Upon your crimes, to drive them to a far
And lesser sight, but let your eyes look right,
What giants would your pride and surfeits seem!
How gross your avarice, eating up whole families!
How vast are your corruptions and abuse
Of the king’s ear! (2.3.140-46)
Although at the end Rosaura is outgunned by the Cardinal, at least she dies with the satisfaction of knowing that he has, stupidly, outgunned himself too.
The Duchess’s centrality was fully realised in Natalie Simpson’s fine performance, which was perfectly attuned to the intimate setting. Simpson offered a richly detailed portrayal of a complex woman: passionate, loving, loyal, outspoken, manipulative, grief-stricken, resourceful and resolute. I hadn’t expected to be moved by her death in the context of the Cardinal’s simultaneous comic demise by self-administered poison, on the false assumption that he was already mortally wounded. Both the production and Simpson’s performance, however, were so sure-footed that tragedy and comedy could successfully coexist, neither cancelling out the other. Shirley too, of course, must be credited with the dramatic know-how to bring off such an oxymoronic denouement. As the play repeatedly notes, it’s all a question of getting the ‘perspective’ right.
My expectations of Stephen Boxer’s performance in the title role, based on his known ability to combine subtlety and emotional depth, were perhaps too great. I have always found the Cardinal two-dimensional, a cardboard-cut-out villain with nice lines in both rhetorical craft and blatant malignancy, so I was looking forward to a more nuanced interpretation. Boxer, though, was unable to suggest even a third dimension to the role, and perhaps there isn’t one, given lines such as these.
’Tis in my brain already, and it forms
Apace, good, excellent revenge, and pleasant!
She’s now within my talons; ’tis too cheap
A satisfaction for Columbo’s death
Only to kill her by soft charm or force;
I’ll rifle first her darling chastity,
’Twill be after time enough to poison her,
And she to th’world be thought her own destroyer. (5.1.86-93)
It was a mistake, I think, to have given to the Cardinal the play’s Prologue, which Boxer delivered with some tonal uncertainty. This was fitting for the Prologue’s playful generic teasing, perhaps, but it diminished the impact of the Cardinal’s gradual, insidious incorporation into the play’s developing action. Subsequently, Boxer’s rich voice and commanding presence seemed overwhelmed by the visual dominance of his flowing scarlet robes – an ‘o’ergrown lobster, | So ready boiled’ in the words of Antonio (5.2.112-13). If I found Boxer’s performance something of a disappointment, then, it was probably not his fault.
The play’s director, Justin Audibert, like Simpson, Boxer and other members of the company, has done some fine work with the RSC. As one of the directors involved in the RSC/Shakespeare Institute ‘Scholars’ Pitch’ in 2013, he, Tom Rutter and their group of actors pitched The Cardinal for a potential RSC production; their pitch consisted of a shortened, script-in-hand reading of the play, with Clive Wood in the title role. Now, Audibert seemed to be re-pitching the play, more elaborately, for a transfer to Stratford’s Swan Theatre, with a production in many ways too expansive for Southwark’s cramped studio space, with its tiny acting area thrust cheek-by-jowl into the audience.
Superficially, though, the production was simple and economical. Anna Reid’s set was limited to an upstage marble wall with recessed sides and a low dais at its base, later dressed as a bed for the Cardinal’s attempted rape of the Duchess. Peter Harrison’s lighting was unfussy but atmospheric, while Max Pappenheim’s evocative sound score encompassed birdsong, the shuffling hooves of restless horses at the military camp, and an echoing, cathedral-like acoustic. He also supplied an aural mise en scène of stirringly resonant choral and organ music, its ecclesiastical intensity enhanced by the cloying scent of incense that greeted the audience on arrival and never quite dissipated.
Within this carefully-crafted ambience, Audibert’s problem lay in the need to coordinate eleven actors, in elaborate period costume, on a stage where three was a crowd. This was exacerbated by there being only two entrances and exits, upstage left and right, necessitating awkward crossings of the stage by actors who ideally should have been able to slip out at the downstage corners. Despite this, there were some impressively managed set-pieces, including the wedding dance, the sinister masque in which Alvarez is murdered, and the ceremonial spectacle that opened the second half of the performance. In addition, there was a fast and furious swordfight between Columbo and Hernando, thrillingly choreographed by Bret Yount, that made one hope those in the front two rows of the audience had put their wills in order before leaving for the theatre. Sensibly, Audibert had removed the duellists’ seconds from this scene; in the text, both get killed before Hernando gives Columbo his death-blow. Perhaps the Health and Safety supremos thought enough was enough. Despite these successes, the overall impression was of a production bursting at the seams and longing for the space to breathe. This was evident, too, in the over-projection of many of the actors, who often seemed to be gripped in the throes of road-rage or the desperate need to summon a number 10 bus.
Shouting aside, the performances were mostly excellent, with the actors physically and vocally well-cast. Jay Saighal’s Columbo and Marcus Griffiths’s Alvarez were effectively contrasted as the Duchess’s unwanted fiancé and unfortunate husband. Saighal’s stocky, short-haired military man was unpleasant and arrogant, while Griffiths managed to imbue his rival, mocked by both Columbo and the Cardinal for his effeminacy, with a tetchy impatience, suggesting that neither man was worthy of the Duchess. Alvarez’s scene with the Duchess (1.2.161-242) was unexpectedly taut and tense; what I had read textually as his weakness and self-pity became, more interestingly, an expression of his contradictory feelings of both self-worth and inferiority. It was a pity the exigencies of casting demanded the resurrection of both Saighal and Griffiths in other roles, as the Doctor and Antonelli respectively. In such an intimate auditorium, their doubling was a minor distraction.
Phil Cheadle’s gruff, rugged Hernando offered a sympathetic variant on the more unapologetic malcontents of Jacobean tragedy. Columbo’s impugning of his courage and honour had clearly damaged his sense of identity, which he chose to restore methodically by championing the Duchess, to whom, in Cheadle’s subtle performance, he became increasingly attracted. The roles of the Duchess’s companions, Valeria and Celinda, extended to incorporate that of her maid, Placentia, were strongly characterised by Sophia Carr-Gomm and Rosie Wyatt. In Wyatt’s sometimes shrill performance, Celinda’s disloyalty and ambition were creepily unpleasant. Timothy Speyer contributed an entertaining comic turn as the Duchess’s morally dubious secretary Antonio, while Ashley Cook gave unexpected weight and dignity to the King’s vacuous, illusory authority. His outraged objection to Columbo’s killing of Alvarez in the masque, on the grounds that it shouldn’t have been done in his presence, was both funny and chilling.
[C]ould [your rage] meet no time
Nor place for your revenge, but where my eyes
Must be affrighted and affronted with
The bloody execution? (3.2.210-13)
Completing the cast, Paul Westwood and Patrick Osborne provided a sympathetic chorus as Medrano and Xavier, distilled and renamed from the text’s various lords and officers.
This was a welcome and much-appreciated opportunity to see an unfairly neglected tragedy in a potentially first-rate production. Though Audibert’s staging often seemed mismatched to the space, its many merits amply made up for this, not least in Natalie Simpson’s accomplished and moving performance. In thinking about it, however, I shall continue to reimagine it in its proper home, Stratford’s Swan Theatre, where the play would really have been able to live, breathe and flex its considerable dramatic muscles.
 Matt Trueman, ‘Review: The Cardinal (Southwark Playhouse)’, https://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/reviews/the-cardinal-southwark-playhouse (accessed 3 May 2017).