November 22, 2011, by Peter Kirwan

Cardenio (Read Not Dead) @ Shakespeare’s Globe

We’ve been spoiled for productions and readings of versions of Cardenio/Double Falsehood over the last two years. We’ve had the RSC’s version, two at the Union Theatre, a full production in New York and readings at Nottingham and Warwick. Older but also younger than all of these is Gary Taylor’s "reconstruction" (as opposed to the RSC’s "reimagining"). Taylor has been working on a version combining Theobald’s text with reconstructed sections of Cervantes’s Don Quixote for nigh-on two decades, and this weekend it came to the Globe in its latest iteration as part of the "Read Not Dead" series of rehearsed readings.

Read Not Dead is rough and ready, but I’m also impressed at how full and dynamic the stagings are. Under the direction of Wilson Milam, the large company gave a lively rendition that, while obviously unable to capture the finer effects of disguise and action, gave Taylor’s text a fair hearing.

It was, overall, quite brilliant. By far the masterstroke was the incorporation of a subplot tracing the early fortunes of the old man Quesada, who runs made and renames himself Don Quixote. Taylor’s text tracked his early exploits with Sancho, his encounters with the mad Cardenio and his final gulling by the Barber and Curate that causes him to return, beaten, to his home town. Tim McInnerny led the cast with a gloriously funny rendition of Quesada that imagined him as exaggerated mock hero, conjuring up his imagined surroundings with a confidence in his resonant voice that made sense of the willingness of those he encounters to indulge him. McInnerny was ably supported by Laura Dewey’s tiny, wry Sancho, who struggled to drag an enormous broadsword around the stage and muttered mutinously, undercutting Quesada’s bluster.

In some ways, the success of these scenes (particularly a passionate bowling scene that introduced the ludicrous knight) had a negative impact on the "main" story, that of Cardenio, which was calmer and less captivating as a result. However, there was much to be liked here. Taylor’s text beefed up the role of Cardenio substantially, giving him a stronger connection to Fernando than exists in Double Falsehood and emphasising the importance of Fernando’s betrayal of Cardenio. He also had several more mad scenes, including a rather cruel instance of beating Quesada and Sancho that sat slightly uneasily (despite it being faithful to Cervantes). However, these scenes kept a clear through line for the character that allowed us to invest more in his final reunion with Lucinda.

The other key character given a much increased role was Violenta. In the hands of Linsey Davies, she was imagined as a particularly feisty girl, very much sexually attracted to Fernando and keen to solemnise marriage with him. Here, even more so than in the Doran production, the attention was not on rape but on the betrayal of a promised oath, allowing the audience to invest in the idea of a romantic comedy rather than something more severe. I preferred the commitment of this production to the ambivalence of the RSC version, which raised but fudged the issue of rape in a way I found particularly disquieting. Violenta was also recruited by the Curate and Barber for the "curing" of Quesada, posing as a foreign princess and uniting the two plot strands. Davies was excellent throughout, creating a rounded and engaging character who arguably became more central than Cardenio.

Displaced in order to build up these two characters was Fernando, played by Jack Parker. Parker’s interpretation and Taylor’s script cast Fernando as a weaker and less manipulative character than in any of the other interpretations I’ve seen – a rather inept wooer and almost helpless in the face of Violenta’s fiery demeanour. One felt almost sorry for this Fernando, for whom nothing ever seemed to go quite right. His scenes were also reduced in the second half, which from my point of view was this adaptation’s biggest weakness, as by his appearance in the final scene we had almost forgotten quite what he had done – the encounter between Fernando and Lucinda when she is released from her coffin seems to me to be an essential part of the dramatic movement in those final scenes, giving a real edge to her fear as she is confronted once more with her persecutor and adding ambivalence to Ricardo’s promises of help.

Coffins were key throughout. The play began with the Duke ruminating on his own, and they reappeared for the abduction from the nunnery and for Quesada’s final entrance into the reunited party. This scene had a Shakespearean sadness to it, reminiscent of the gulling of Malvolio but without any self-awareness on the part of the gull. The final scene was, overall, a little weak, but I’m inclined to put this down primarily to the lack of resources – the stage directions called for a full masque of dancing nymphs, one of whom would turn out to be Cardenio, as well as the disguises and coffins. A little less of Theobald’s sentiment may also have helped, as the reunion of Fernando and Violenta in particular felt too neat. However, it resolved the plots satisfactorily and brought the play to a neat conclusion in Quesada’s appeal to the audience for applause.

There were other interesting decisions. I was particularly struck by the transposition of the Duke’s pivotal "Fathers are as gods" speech to the Curate in the wedding scene – it worked well in the new setting, but I felt its lack in the final scene. Following Taylor’s theories about subplots, the Fabian/Lopez dialogue was removed to Act 4, where it became the words of Sancho and Quesada on encountering the mad Cardenio. With the act recast as a love betrayal rather than a rape, there was no room for the "Henriquez" speech of Double Falsehood, my favourite bit of that play but here unfitting. The introduction of a more substantive female servant for Lucinda was a good choice that added much-needed banter to the early scenes, and Camillo and Bernardo benefitted from inclusion in the bowling scene, where their reactions to each other and to Quesada helped shape their characters for the rest of the play.

The overwhelming impression was of a coherent and entertaining play that deserves full production (and will receive it in Indianapolis in April). It’s inevitable that any reconstruction of a lost play won’t tick everything on everybody’s wishlist, but Taylor’s version offers a great piece of theatre that does justice to the extant sources and creates something with its own distinct character. It’ll be supported, too, by essays in the forthcoming collection The Quest for Cardenio edited by Taylor and David Carnegie, due out in 2012. A fascinating experiment that made for a very enjoyable afternoon.

Posted in Theatre review