The Cardinal was the last extant tragedy performed before that pesky Oliver Cromwell chopped off the royal head, ending the English Civil War and closely followed by him closing the theatres. James Shirley’s 1641 play is rarely performed and, like all obscure work resurrected, it’s wise to approach it with caution. Yes, classic and important works are often lost, often because they’ve been misunderstood by audiences of their time, or disregarded by history as the work of minorities and women. We should never stop interrogating the accepted canon for bias and hegemony.
But a contemporary comment about Shirley from Charles Lamb, suggests this isn’t the case for Shirley: he “claims a place among the worthies of this period, not so much for any transcendent genius in himself, as that he was the last of a great race, all of whom spoke nearly the same language and had a set of moral feelings and notions in common.”
And seeing as the great Jacobean and Restoration dramas find their way on to the stage with clockwork regularity, you have to wonder why we need to see The Cardinal. Maybe it is, indeed, a lost work of incisive insight and transcendent beauty, its trajectory toward greatness knocked off course by the fun-bypassing Puritans.
Set in Navarre, an evil Cardinal (the power-mad, self-serving type we know from everything right up to House of Cards) exerts his influence over the slightly drippy king to advance his family’s position with an advantageous marriage between his nephew and the luminous, widowed duchess. Intrigue ensues and, as this is a tragedy, it’s probably not a spoiler to reveal that protagonists die.
In the tiny, bare space of Southwark’s Playhouse Little, The Cardinal becomes an interesting affair but it’s certainly not a dazzling discovery. While we may not have recovered the work of a forgotten, marginalised genius, the by-numbers familiarity of the tropes its wheels out is satisfying for theatre lovers. It’s all there: some elegant poetry, clever metaphors, witty word play, a play within a play, masque, an illicit love affair, a bit of double-crossing and bags of revenge topped off with a character doing some improbably articulate exposition while dying by poisoning. It just isn’t mixed into any kind of magic.
But director Justin Audibert’s production squeezes the best out of the play. The minimal staging in the Little works well, leaving the performances to carry the weight of the text. The perils of period productions in small spaces – and small budgets – where the audience is up-close and personal, are many and, even here, we’re not saved from some jarring anachronistic costume. But, on the whole, things are kept slick and what is largish cast for make fluid work of the constant entrances and exits. Wonders are worked with some one-dimensional characterisation, again probably down to the restrained direction: comic and evil characters are steered well away from potential caricature.
But it’s with the Duchess rather than the Cardinal that this play gets interesting. While it wants too much for psychological depth to be a great tragedy, the Duchess’s travails are touching, and it is her narrative that forms the heart of the play as the one character who seems to have a dramatic trajectory we can identify with.
And, so, the The Cardinal becomes the Natalie Simpson show. Luminous as the Duchess, she is the kind of performer you’d show up to watch eating crisps. Blessed with the ability to make even the most strained lines seem effortless – the organic result of a fleeting thought – she oozes warmth, ease, wit and determination. Her charm and naturalness breathes believable life into the sketchily-drawn character. Stopped from marrying the man she loves and betrothed to The Cardinal’s agro nephew, her scheming and its resulting woes are dealt up by Natalie with compassion and dignity – and you can’t take your eyes off her.
Is enough made of the enduring relevance of the Duchess’s dilemma? Does it add to our understanding of the human condition? Probably not. Would its slightness be exposed on a larger stage? Probably. But, for now, The Cardinal works as a small-scale production played straight-on, offering an intriguing night out for Early Moderners and other drama nerds.
The Cardinal is on at Southwark Playhouse until 27th May, 2017. Book tickets here.