July 31, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Cardenio [The Second Maiden’s Tragedy] (Aporia Theatre) @ The Dell, Stratford–upon–Avon

Writing about web page http://aporiatheatre.com/Aporia%20Theatre%20Website_files/PreviousProductions.htm

I must get the complaints out of the way first. Publicity materials for Aporia Theatre’s dates at the Dell in Stratford-upon-Avon announced that the company would be performing "Cardenio by Shakespeare – Fletcher – Middleton: The Alternative Text." I repeat the title used by the company; but, as I knew already from information about the London run, this wasn’t Cardenio at all. The play in question is better known as The Second Maiden’s Tragedy or The Lady’s Tragedy. In 1994, the amateur palaeographer Charles Hamilton edited and published the play as Cardenio. The source of the main plot is, indeed, Cervantes’s Don Quixote, but a different tale that interweaves with the Cardenio story. An early reader did indeed suggest Shakespeare as one of several possible writers for the anonymous play, but other than that the Shakespeare attribution has rarely been taken seriously. Hamilton argued, with passion but little rigour, that the manuscript was in Shakespeare’s handwriting, and that the play was the lost Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration. His attribution has not been accepted by the academic community, which almost unanimously accepts the attribution of the play to Thomas Middleton (though it’s fair to mention that Eric Rasmussen did make a case for Shakespeare’s involvement a while ago, an argument that likewise received little attention).

The presentation of this production as an "alternative text" for Cardenio is misleading, suggesting that the relationship between this play and the current production at Stratford is akin to that between the different versions of Hamlet. Even though the attribution to Shakespeare has been roundly refuted, the company continued to present the play as potentially Shakespeare’s in order to attract publicity. It’s a shame, partly because the play is one of Middleton’s best and deserves to be advertised under its better-known name, and partly because it detracted from an inventive, well-acted and entertaining production in its own right.

The actors struggled a bit in the Dell, attempting to project to a widely-dispersed open-air audience and competing against the afternoon bell-ringing practice at nearby Holy Trinity Church. For a production which largely presented its roles in rhetorical and stylised modes this wasn’t too much of a problem, but it did mean that some of the production’s subtleties got lost. Calum Witney’s Anselmo in particular (NB several of the usual character names were changed to match the Spanish setting suggested by ‘Cardenio’) had some lovely facial expressions, whether in whispered conversation with Andrew Bate’s Lotario (this production’s Votarius) or his Wife (here renamed Camila, played by Freya Finnerty), that spoke to the complexity of the moral situation he had created for himself.

The production was styled after Japanese kabuki theatre, with characters in white make-up and carrying curved swords. This lent itself to formal presentation rather than detailed characterisation, particularly in the main plot. Thomas Thoroe’s Cardenio (Govianus) was a cold avenger, perpetually angry and representative of his fall. The production began with him kneeling to pray, before Ryan Burkwood’s Tyrant (here Fernando) entered and had him arrested by his men. The dynamic between the two was strong throughout, Cardenio’s aloof and righteous anger balanced by Fernando’s wonderfully lascivious evil. Fernando smiled constantly, lounged on cushions, waved his hands dismissively while ordering extreme acts and reacted with spoiled frustration when denied his desires. As the production went on, he became increasingly unhinged, first lying astride Luscinda’s (The Lady’s) corpse and later going completely Norman Bates as he chatted with the seated body in his chamber. This scene particularly drew out the contrast, as Cardenio (disguised with a shawl over his head) stood calmly while Fernando ran about the stage in desperate denial of his love’s death.

While I would have preferred to see more human emotion in Cardenio himself, the cast drew out the pathos of the house arrest well. Cardenio and Paloma Oakenfold’s Luscinda had little personal time together, but concentrated on the desperation of their position. Helvetius’s attempts to persuade his daughter to betray herself ended with him shaking her hard before Cardenio entered and shot a pistol into the air. Michael J Hayes as Helvetius played his repentance convincingly, and his defiance of Fernando in the subsequent scene marked the beginnings of the Tyrant’s madness in his furious response. Later, while awaiting their final capture, Cardenio and Luscinda’s argument over her murder was tightly fought, continually building to moments where Cardenio readied his sword. His collapse on the point of ending her life was particularly strong (and oddly reminiscent of Cardenio as played in the current RSC production in his aversion of a major act). She drew his sword for her death but, in one of the production’s major interventions, the act itself was represented by Fernando entering and twisting her head, making clear for an audience his agency in forcing her to this point.

The seminal crypt scene was extremely well done. Actors stood as statues, lining the way to a makeshift plinth in the middle of the audience where Luscinda lay. Fernando’s growing madness manifested as he ordered his reluctant men to remove the lid of the tomb before he jumped in on top of the body, causing the statues to turn their heads in horror. Cardenio entered the same space shortly afterwards. In a stunning image, two actors upstage held up a sheet vertically. From behind the sheet, Luscinda pushed her face and body against it for her appearance as the ghost, shouting her lines clearly while bits of her body manifested and disappeared. Equally powerful was her later appearance, where the corpse in Fernando’s room simply stood up to address her lover before sinking down again. The dynamics of this scene were deeply complex. Fernando drew groans of disgust from the audience as he inserted his tongue down the corpse’s throat, before dying pathetically on the steps while Cardenio stood over him in triumph.

The subplot was equally well performed, with more attention to the humanity of the characters. While Camila was perhaps a bit too melodramatic for the space, Emma Richardson’s Cockney Leonella was effectively irreverent, nodding and winking at the audience. The two were especially good during their final staged scene for the benefit of the unseen Anselmo, performing in high kabuki style and interrupting each other in their normal voices when things began to go wrong.

Bate’s Lotario was the production’s secret weapon, a personable and open anti-hero who began with an apparent moral consistency that was gradually overcome by Camila’s acceptance of his unwilling advances. The actor gave a strong account of the character – furious with Will Bowden’s furtive, black-clad Bellarius, simultaneously heedful of and angry at his master, sexually undone by Camila but equally ready to take responsibility for his actions and commit further crimes to escape them. Particularly in his first post-coital scene, topless and confused on the main stage while Camila slept on the plinth, he fully embodied the complexity of one of Middleton’s richest characters. Anselmo was also pleasingly complex. His posh voice spoke of the thoughtless privilege that prompted him to initiate his own disastrous domestic tragedy, but as events progressed and he became the voice of relative innocence, confused and passive. His cries of anguish as he revived from death long enough to hear confirmation of his wife’s infidelity were one of the production’s most affecting moments.

A lot of the production’s good work was undone, however, in an appalling final decision. The ghosts of all the deceased entered along with Helvetius to hail the new King, and Cardenio thanked them. He then turned to the body of his lover, took her in his arms and kissed her unthinkingly. He turned away, then realised what he had done, choked and died onstage, the production closing on the image of him kneeling. This drew laughs from some of the audience, and showed no respect to character or play, choosing to end on a note of cheap irony rather then the sombre restoration of order. The clear intent was to exaggerate the number of deaths in the play’s final image, but the effect was crass. It’s a shame – the production deserves a long life, and the opportunity to see the play was extremely welcome. With this tacked-on ending removed, and the more recognisable name restored, it’d be even better. As it is, this was largely a well-considered and entertaining production, and exactly the kind of thing the Dell should be supporting.

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