With the passing of time, some losses turn out to be gains after all. Such, at least, is the guiding idea behind Greg Doran’s “reimagining” of ‘Shakespeare’s so-called “lost” play’, Cardenio. Working backward from Lewis Theobald’s eighteenth-century adaptation of a play apparently based on a manuscript of a lost Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration (Double Falsehood, premiered in 1727), Doran adds a host of new collaborators – Cervantes scholars, RSC players, himself – to “reimagine” a more Jacobean and Shakespearean play than the slightly dubious Theobald had managed.
What this produces is a joyous, lively and utterly entertaining celebration of Shakespeare and the Shakespearean, all the more beguiling for being played in the newly reopened Swan Theatre. Pitched somewhere between a problem comedy and a late romance, borrowing bits of plot, language and structure from late Shakespeare and early Fletcher where the villain of the piece gets a better marriage than he deserves and the hero gets the girl he loves – though it’s a moot point whether she gets the man she fell in love with: Cardenio ends the play a mad, ragged mountainy man. After tragedy comes redemption, this play has it, even if it’s a pretty funny kind of redemption. Or as its most perturbing character, the rape-victim turned lover, Dorotea, puts it, “Time may beget a wonder”.
There are plenty of wonders in the play (it’s no coincidence that The Winter’s Tale is the play Cardenio most resembles) and the colour, commitment and exuberance that typify Doran’s style are put to good effect in this transmogrified romance. Doran would have us believe that Cardenio itself is a ‘wonder’, of course, a miraculous recuperation and a wondrous collaboration across the centuries; the claim to “reimagine”, rather than “imagine” is defiant. But what exactly is Cardenio, and how does it differ from Double Falsehood?
A play called Cardenno was apparently performed at court at least twice in 1613, but it was nowhere to be seen in the 1623 First Folio (nor did it appear in print until Theobald’s 1728 version). We do know that it drew on a tale from Cervantes, whose Don Quixote had just been published in English translation for the first time in 1612. With the inclusion of Brean Hammond’s edition of Double Falsehood in the Arden Shakespeare series last year, it appear that the argument about the claims of a play based on Cervantes’s tale of Cardenio in Don Quixote to a place in the Shakespeare canon is now over. But we also owe this production of Cardenio to a new appreciation of the regular collaborative practices of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
Doran’s experiment in reimagining a Cardenio divested of its eighteenth-century social and literary constraints, and instead more closely attuned to the social and literary context of the play’s apparent performance at court in 1613, is both hommage to, and pastiche of the late Shakespeare. Nuns, madness, kidnapping, people leaping out of coffins, singing shepherds, carnival puppets and oodles of opportunities to spot-the-Shakespeare-play … it’s all there. Doran wholeheartedly embraces the Spanish setting of the Cervantes source: melancholy, Goya-esque knights stalk the stage in black leathers, Spanish guitar and voice ramp up the emotions and fiesta puppets move props and plot along with fiendish gurgles of laughter.
We get fine performances from Lucy Briggs-Owen (the redoubtable faithful lover, whose avowals of dutiful obedience to her father fools nobody), Oliver Rix (a charmingly hapless Cardenio, Rix’s first major role) and Pippa Nixon as spurned lover, shepherd boy, singer and pursuer of the man who raped her. But as usual, it’s the villain who really compels attention, the glowering, thrill-seeking Don Fernando (Alex Hassell). Rather than playing Don Fernando as the cardboard villains Bertram (All’s Well) or Don John (Much Ado), Hassell makes the main plot – his attempt to steal his best friend’s girl – seem only a symptom of a far darker, more complex personality. Meaty villains notwithstanding, some of the most charming scenes come from the wit and warmth of the hard-bargaining fathers of these young lovers, who, for all their hypocrisies and profiteering motives, find themselves tripped up by their own sentiments.
If it isn’t Shakespeare, it’s still a beguiling Shakespearean experiment to savour.