It’s not often you get to see the premiere of a lost Shakespeare play and, whilst that might be overdoing it a bit, it has to be said that this production has generated a lot of merited excitement. Of course the original Cardenio is unlikely to ever be rediscovered and the text as presented in Gregory Doran’s new play is not that penned by the Bard and Fletcher at the start of the 17th century. However, sitting in the audience at the newly reopened Swan Theatre in Stratford, it is easy to forget the ‘literary archaeology’ which has lovingly gone into restoring the only surviving possible adaptation of the 1612 original, Theobald’s The Double Falsehood, into a performable piece able to stand alongside those other tales of cross-dressing lovers so familiar to the RSC.
The plot is straight out of Cervantes’s Don Quixote. At the start Cardenio is on the verge of marrying his first love Luscinda. Everything is arranged but before he is able to obtain his father’s needed consent he is summoned to court. His role there is to be a check to the excesses of the Duke’s wayward son Fernando who has been relentlessly courting the modest but socially inferior Dorotea. Thus the two pairs of lovers – along with their fathers who, as always in Shakespeare, manage to upset everything through their folly – are introduced to the audience along with the oppositions of love and lust, trust and betrayal which drive the play.
With such serious themes as rape and a plot driven by forcibly parted lovers there are moments when it seems unlikely that order will triumph over the chaos of Fernando’s making as he attempts to defile virgin daughters and nuns. However, a laugh is always soon provided by the indignant Don Camillo played by an excellent Christopher Godwin.
Amusement may also be found in the indoor fireworks which represent the consummation of Fernando and Dorotea’s ‘marriage’ – not particularly subtle but rather impressive none the less. Also very impressive is Oliver Rix (a graduate from Oxford) in his first major role as the eponymous Cardenio who manages to be engaging throughout – even whilst providing his lusty friend with practical (but rather boring) advice on the nature of love.
I immensely enjoyed Cardenio and found myself caring less and less about the authenticity of the text and the cleverness of its resurrection. Some of the views expressed may not find favour with modern youth or third wave feminist society but that just exemplifies how far this new re-imagining has been able to control those subtle anachronisms which could be generated not so much by ignorance but by intervening history and ideological change. It was beautifully staged and offered the viewer everything from fiestas to funerals, dances to disguises, along with one moment which made me jump out of my seat.
It may not be Shakespeare, it doesn’t seem to be able to attributed to any single playwright, but it is good fun. Forget the academic debate, Cardenio is pure entertainment.