The advertisements invite us to ‘discover a forgotten Shakespeare’, but, despite the extensive academic debate on the subject, it is hard to believe that Double Falsehood really did come from the pen of the Bard.
This does not, however, mean that director Phil Willmott is engaged in his own game of deceit. His self-proclaimed aim in bringing the piece to life is to allow audiences to judge it on its own merits and enjoy it as a piece of entertainment.
The play was first presented as a lost work by Lewis Theobold, arguably the greatest Shakespeare editor of his day, in 1727.
It has been linked to Cardenio, believed to have been written by Shakespeare and John Webster in 1613, but for many reasons it is hard to see how it could bear any more than a passing resemblance to the earlier play, not least because the lines lack the beauty and lyricism of Henry VIII even, let alone Hamlet or King Lear.
The plot, which focuses on what happens when the Duke’s son Henrique rapes the servant Violante and tries to steal his friend Julio’s fiancÃ©e Leonora, has a multitude of Shakespearean elements in it, including a woman disguising herself as a man. Willmott is the first, however, to proclaim that ‘this could mean that someone ticked these off a check list in order to write an homage. Or a rip off!’.
But, for the same reason, the play is a worthwhile study in how a lesser hand can employ Shakespearean devices, and, having not been performed professionally for over 200 years, holds much interest in its own right. There are two scenes that start out a little like Romeo and Juliet’s balcony scene before diverging wildly. In the first, Henrique appears before Violante only for her to shun him. In the second, Leonora stares at all the passers-by hoping that one of them will be Julio. The scenes, however, sometimes feel stilted and link uneasily. It is hard to picture Shakespeare having Violante storm out on Henrique in one scene, only for both to be back on stage in the next (when he goes on to rape her).
This production appears to recognise that Double Falsehood is an interesting, rather than brilliant, work, and consequently succeeds in exploiting its still significant merits. It seems fully aware that the reconciliatory ending is rather like tagging the end of Measure for Measure onto Macbeth (given the horrors that went before, it feels false to solve everything so neatly). It highlights this irony by playing the text straight down the board, while also using a closing tableau to leave a bitter taste in the mouth. Of course, this is necessary because, unlike The Winter’s Tale where two deaths that have occurred can never be reversed, here there is nothing in the text itself to perform that function.
The strong acting also helps to bring out many points. Adam Redmore as Henrique cleverly delivers his lines with enough superficial sincerity to fool the characters, while never once convincing the audience that he means a word he says. It is impressive just how flat he can make his expression of sorrow feel to the independent observer upon first seeing Leonora upset. Emily Plumtree as Leonora gives a lucid portrayal of one who goes from youthful sweetness (the hurt she feels when Julio leaves at the start rings of innocence) to miserable, suicidal despair. Su Douglas as her Mother also leaves an impression as she shows her values to be totally misguided, except when it really matters. Before she sees the light she is shamelessly duped by Henrique’s status and charm, and angrily, almost violently, forces an unwanted marriage upon her daughter. Gabriel Vick is also effective as Julio, while Jessie Lilley’s Violante captures the right mix of class consciousness, sensitivity and assertiveness.
But it is two old hands who come off best. Stephen Boswell as Julio’s Father combines a simple well-meaning nature with ‘cuckolded’ outrage, while Richard Franklin shines as the Duke. Like the one in Measure for Measure he is not an evil person, but his superficial healing of the rifts mask a lack of control as well as a blindness to his own neglect of duty.
Double Falsehood is probably not Shakespeare and is certainly not a masterpiece, but this production does well to understand its not inconsiderable merits and exploit them to the full. It holds more than enough interest to warrant a trip, before you are forced to wait another 200 years to see it!