August 18, 2010, by Peter Kirwan

Double Falsehood (KDC) @ The Union Theatre

While the claims of KDC to be presenting the 21st century premiere of Double Falsehood are at best questionable (a more accurate claim would be "the 21st century premiere of a play calling itself Double Falsehood"), the long-established London amateur company certainly offered a significant event in the public performance of this long-neglected play. Riding on the coat tails of the new Arden edition, and performed under a railway arch in Southwark, the production acknowledged the growing appreciation of Double Falsehood as a play in its own right, rather than as a bastardisation of a lost "original".

Barrie Addenbrooke’s production began in a stately vein, with lavish period costumes and an evocative set of drapes and curtains that allowed for the possibility of concealed exits and entrances. The courtly setting of the first scene was well evoked, although a formal opening dance looked awkward in the cramped space available. The formality of the opening and the costumes, however, set far too dominant a tone for the rest of a play that is, after all, built around class conflict. With both Leonora and Violante richly dressed, the vast difference in their status was elided; and Julio was dressed identically throughout to Henriquez and Roderick, similarly ignoring the impact of his summoning to court and Camillo’s social climbing. The effect was to make it seem as if most of the action of the first half was set at court, which particularly muted the transgressive quality of Henriquez’s wooing of Violante, here even gifted a maid who gave Henriquez the key to Violante’s bedroom for a reward of money and a kiss.

The formal treatment of the play’s first half resulted in a tone that I found surprisingly serious. In particular, the first scene between Gareth Davies’s Julio and Anita Constantine’s Leonora downplayed the playfulness of Leonora’s teasing in favour of a stately cool that gave way to genuine anxiety over the potential trials she might face – a valid reading, though lacking something of spark. Constantine excelled rather in showing the cracks as this formal and virtuous figure was subjected to repeated assaults, becoming increasingly distraught and desperate as she approached the wedding. Her Maid was turned into a Duenna (Niki Mylonas) who served a function reminiscent of the Nurse of Romeo and Juliet, coming to the fore as she took the dagger from Leonora before the wedding began, saving her charge from herself.

The severity of the play’s first half extended to the fathers. While the more obviously comic exchanges remained such – most effectively as Richard Williams’s Don Bernard acted innocent before Gary Mahoney’s Camillo – the complaints of both men after the loss of their children were played in a state of near-depression. The humbling of Don Bernard was not the deflating of a pompous and controlling father figure, but the just punishment of an abusive father. Bernard was violent towards his daughter, casting her to the floor in anger at her refusal to wed Henriquez and dragging her to the altar during the wedding scene. His anger and rage (cf Capulet) established a force of genuine tyranny within the play that threatened to overshadow Henriquez’s villainy.

Helen Kelly’s Violante, on the other hand, was a lively and vivacious figure. In her first appearance, she emerged from her room to address Henriquez and proceeded to flirtatiously tease him, pacing around him, tipping her head coyly and allowing him to stroke her hair and shoulders, though shied away from kisses. Only as he began to manhandle her more freely did she lose her composure and eventually pull away from him in anger, before marching back into her room. All fired up, Henriquez paid the maid (Samantha Claver) and stalked in after Violante. The Maid then eyed up Gerald and seduced him onstage, pulling him off for her own liaison, neatly filling the rape-gap without having to add anything more explicit. The Maid remained an interestingly ambiguous figure throughout, becoming the Servant entrusted with procuring Violante’s disguise. Violante’s questioning of her trustworthiness and corruption took on a different emphasis in the light of what the audience knew had occurred, and even at this stage the Maid required large payments before agreeing to help.

Of the young men, Davies’s Julio was frustratingly distant for much of the action, studiously ignoring the audience in soliloquy and maintaining a polite, quiet attitude throughout the play, with a delicacy even in his madness. Maxim Moya-Thompson played Roderick in a similar vein, though more appropriate to his role. Gareth Shaw had more success as Henriquez – yet again played with introspection, but here used to great effect, especially in his self-justifying after the rape. Kneeling at first in something approaching anguish, he then collected himself and sat casually on a bench as he questioned himself, drawing the audience into his interrogation and eventually winking at us in conspiracy as he left to pursue Leonora. His quiet maliciousness throughout the play was a constant pleasure, and his sickly wooing of Leonora balanced Don Bernard’s aggressiveness nicely.

As the action approached the set pieces, the pace picked up. A bubbly townswoman replaced the gentleman who brings Julio and Leonora back together, as part of a general increase and expansion of female roles within the play. While this lost something (the trust Violante and Leonora place in the male servant and Citizen who they take into their confidence at crucial points reflects interestingly on their respective histories with men earlier in the play), it also enhanced the networks of female trust within the play, and the Townswoman took an active enthusiasm in helping Julio. She carried a basket of theatrical masks, and Julio adopted a disguise as the Devil to break up the wedding, to the effective screams of the Duenna. While the action of the wedding scene itself was a little perfunctory (Julio simply grabbed and dragged out), the disruption of the scene contrasted nicely with the formal blocking of the play’s earlier scenes.

This gave way, following the interval, to a pastoral setting. Rather than the working fields implied by the text, we were instead treated to a festival akin to Act 4 of Winter’s Tale, with shepherds of both genders celebrating rather than labouring in the fields, and the Master of the Flocks serving as the chief reveller. The distracted Julio was a source of amusement rather than fear to the shepherds (although Waylon Ma’s amusing Second Shepherd was suitably put out by the grabbing of his nose and his rather physical besting by Julio), and his ravings were especially sober with the equally solemn Violante, effectively disguised as a boy.

One of the core strengths of this production was the clarity with which it presented action often dismissed as complicated or irretrievably butchered. Julio’s madness was apparent, as was Roderick’s organisation of the final reunions. Even more interestingly, Henriquez and Roderick’s explanation of their plan to liberate Leonora from the nunnery was crystal clear, and their subsequent appearance rendered any "missing" action irrelevant. Leonora entered in confusion, surrounded by masked and armed men dressed in black. Roderick and Henriquez pulled off their masks to reveal and explain themselves, and Leonora’s reaction mixed relief with disgust. For those directors who claim action is necessarily missing from Double Falsehood, Addenbrooke’s production proved the effectiveness and permissibility of the text.

Of course, the ghost of Cardenio couldn’t be completely exorcised. In the production’s stand-out scenes, Fabian and Lopez (and later, the two Gentlemen) were replaced by Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, riding pantomime versions of their horse and ass. Quixote quoted famous lines from Shakespeare in a convoluted commentary on the main action, while Sancho filled in with responses and clowning. The introduction of these two livened up their scenes considerably, and acted as a dramatically powerful counter to Henriquez’s post-rape scene, relieving the tension of the latter’s admissions. It also allowed for a nice moment in the latter scene where, at Violante’s mention of Henriquez, Quixote and Sancho Panza shared a glance, clearly recalling their earlier encounter with that lord. These scenes provided the main comic interest of the play, and certainly made a powerful case to me for the effectiveness of introducing the knight and his squire.

A final scene of reunification resumed a more comic tone, particularly as Camillo lost himself in his own grief and missed the revelation of Julio taking place centre stage. Julio entered disguised as a mariachi, and Leonora removed his disguise one piece at a time in a surprisingly moving sequence. The bringing together of Henriquez and Violante was also effective, promising nothing extraordinary but allowing the prince to show a tenderness towards Violante that came naturally from his character. The Duke’s ennobling of Violante drew laughs, however; this final piece of hitherto neglected information one too many for a modern audience to take.

This production’s key importance was in demonstrating how well Double Falsehood can work on its own terms, without apology. Despite some of the above reservations (and I should say, this was the first performance), KDC proved the play to be an effective, entertaining and often extremely funny piece, but one that also taps into key issues and provides a solid emotional payoff at its conclusion. Hopefully, the availability of a modern edited text and the success of this production will inspire more directors to see what they can find in it.

Posted in Theatre review