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Review of The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse

Stephen Boxer and Natalie Simpson in The Cardinal
Stephen Boxer and Natalie Simpson in The Cardinal – Credit Mitzi de Margary

I’m pleased I wasn’t the only one in the audience that hadn’t had much if any, previous interaction with the works of James Shirley (1596-1666). As I never tire of saying when it comes to rarely performed works, there must be a reason why a play like this doesn’t have more productions. At least this one had its early life curtailed by country-wide politics as opposed to the show itself being panned. The Cardinal has gone down in history as one of the last ‘extant’ plays (some others presumably having been lost) to have been written and performed prior to the English Civil War of 1642 to 1651. At the start of this war, all theatres in England were closed down by order of Parliament.

Shirley’s relatively straightforward – less flowery and more direct – script makes it far more accessible to audiences then and now than something like Shakespeare’s plays. Not much is lost in terms of emotional impact, quite the opposite in this case – how pleasing to note that even in the reign of Charles I, less sometimes meant more. Naturally, not every element makes sense for someone seeing this show for the first time in 2017, and I suspect this was a play written for discerning audiences who understood the socio-political climate of the day. Some of the lines proved educational for me – I wasn’t aware of tarantism, for instance, before it was mentioned in this play.

Perhaps the original script does not call for it anyway, but it was surprising how little staging there was. There’s nothing aside from a raised platform and, in one scene, some sheets and pillows to denote a bedroom. Thus in this tale in which the dramatis personae included miscellaneous people of importance, there’s a King (Ashley Cook) supposedly without a throne, and a Cardinal (Stephen Boxer) supposedly without a prayer stall.

The sound design (Max Pappenheim) was quite extraordinary, making a small performance space seem much bigger than it really is, with voices echoing as they would in the King’s palace or the Cardinal’s church, but without them being unpleasantly ear-piercing. With the audience sat on three sides, the cast move about very well, ensuring that there is no significant disadvantage wherever someone’s vantage point of proceedings is.

In the title role, Boxer’s Cardinal is performed as one of those characters that one loves to hate, and in so doing became quite likeable for me, from the outside looking in. Unlike his nephew, Columbo (Jay Saighal), who takes an ‘I don’t care who you are, I shall speak my mind regardless’ approach, he has a calculating darkness, and would probably be an excellent ‘spin doctor’ for a political party today. It was certainly the most believable performance of the lot. Of the supporting roles, Natalie Simpson’s Duchess Rosaura takes on the full gamut of human emotion – she has to, given the rapid turn of events in Act Three. Valeria (Sophia Carr-Gomm) and Celinda (Rosie Wyatt) provide humorous asides and observations.

That this play from 1641 gives women such pivotal roles in the narrative goes down well in the twenty-first century. Granted, such characters would, at the time, have been played by male actors – one punchline, “I know not whether she be man or woman” (Act Four, Scene Two, line 93) doesn’t have any resonance at all in this particular production, what with men playing men and women playing women.

But, as with older plays, the audience is directly addressed a lot of the time and kept abreast of characters’ thoughts and feelings. Yes, it adheres strictly to dramatic conventions in tragedies that stretch back as far as Aristotle, so few marks for originality, but it doesn’t stop this being an absorbing and entertaining production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

The state of Navarre is in crisis. An unscrupulous Cardinal has the ear of the King and is hungry for power. The Duchess Rosaura longs to marry the Count D’Alvarez, but the Cardinal wants her for his brutish nephew. To tighten his grip on the Kingdom, the ruthless Cardinal will stop at nothing to secure the marriage. But in the Duchess it seems he has finally met his match…

Hailed as James Shirley’s tragic masterpiece, The Cardinal (1641) was one of the last plays staged in England before Oliver Cromwell’s ban on theatre. With remarkably lucid and fast-paced dialogue, it is the captivating story of a religious monster and his relentless pursuit of power.

Starring Stephen Boxer (King Lear, National Theatre) and Natalie Simpson (King Lear, Hamlet and Cymbeline, Royal Shakespeare Company), directed by Justin Audibert (Snow in Midsummer and The Jew of Malta, Royal Shakespeare Company) and produced by Troupe (After October, Flowering Cherry and The White Carnation, Finborough Theatre).

Creative Team
Director – Justin Audibert
Designer – Anna Reid
Lighting Designer – Peter Harrison
Sound Designer – Max Pappenheim
Fight Direction – Bret Yount
Movement Direction – Natasha Harrison

Stephen Boxer, Sophia Carr-Gomm, Phil Cheadle, Ashley Cook, Marcus Griffiths, Patrick Osborne, Jay Saighal, Natalie Simpson, Timothy Speyer, Paul Westwood, Rosie Wyatt.

Troupe presents
The Cardinal
by James Shirley
26TH APRIL – 27TH MAY 2017

Venue: Southwark Playhouse
77-85 Newington Causeway
London SE1 6BD



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