Sunday, 15 May 2011


One of the lovely things about living in West Oxfordshire is that we are less than an hour's drive from Stratford-upon-Avon. And we have taken full advantage of that, packing in as much Shakespeare as we possibly can, thrilling to Michael Boyd's athletic Histories in the Courtyard, watching the building site in front of the Memorial Theatre give way to new gardens and sampling the many ways of fitting in a meal before or after plays.

But this Saturday we saw something that was only "almost Shakespeare" or "maybe Shakespeare": Cardenio, Shakespeare's "lost play" re-imagined and directed by by Gregory Doran. As a production it was an absolute triumph, convincingly Spanish, for a play supposed inspired by Cervantes and acted with vigour and energy.

It's a play that might have been written by Shakespeare and Fletcher in 1612; no manuscript survives but in 1727, Lewis Theobald wrote another play, Double Falsehood, or the Distressed Lovers from a text a couple of removes from the original, which was written in the same year that Don Quixote was first published in English. So a list of illustrious ancestors and now two Godfathers: not just Doran but Antonio Alamo, a Spanish dramaturge, whose hand is noticeable throughout.

It helps if you know your Shakespeare. The false friend who falls for his companion's  love was around as early as Two Gentlemen of Verona. Here Cardenio's beloved Luscinda is immediately lusted after by Fernando, younger son of Duke Ricardo. But not until after Fernando has had his wicked way with Dorotea, the daughter of a wealthy farmer, and then immediately wearied of her.

Echoes of Measure for Measure's Mariana in the moated grange here and of All's Well that ends Well in Dorotea's pursuit of her faithless lover while dressed as a shepherd boy.

All four lovers are strongly played. Alex Hassell as Fernando is much more flamboyant than Oliver Rix in the title role but that is probably because Cardenio himself is rather wet; Rix showed in the flamenco that replaced the jig at the end that he could be just as fiery.

Lucy Briggs-Owen was a very lush Luscinda - as beautiful as Uma Thurman and with perfect diction but oh! the endless gurning! She bit her lips, stuck her tongue in her cheek and rolled her eyes like a veteran of EastEnders or Hollyoaks. I hope she'll drop these mannerisms soon. Pippa Nixon as Dorotea seemed much more classically gifted, like a young Dorothy Tutin.

It was a very strong ensemble with Christopher Godwin especially adorable as Cardenio's old father Don Camillo.

So, as far as themes and construction go, it could well have appealed to Shakespeare (though I think he would have had the two women meet and conspire in Fernando's comeuppance). But what about the language? Some false notes here, as when Cardenio explains his difficulties to Fernando:

"The which I dare not mention to my dad,
Fearing lest he won't consent thereto."

Rightly mocked by Shakespeare scholar Katherine Duncan-Jones in her TLS review.

But for a vibrant and impressive evening in the Swan at Stratford for lovers of Shakespeare it's a wonderful experience.