The Cardinal

Southwark Playhouse, while it has a deservedly excellent reputation, isn’t the first place I would think of in terms of seventeenth century plays. I might have to rethink that, though, as Justin Audibert’s production of The Cardinal in their Little space is unmissable for anyone interested in revenge tragedy.

Written by James Shirley, the play was one of the last to be performed during the reign of Charles I – before the Puritans banned the theatres – and has rarely been performed since.  Stylistically it’s a Jacobean revenge tragedy, technically it’s from the Caroline era. Sometimes, watching a ‘rediscovered’ play you start to realise why it has lain undiscovered all these years, but with The Cardinal I felt I was witnessing a little gem.

Set in Navarre, it is the story of the Duchess Rosaura who has been left a widow and now hopes to marry her true love, the Count d’Alvarez. Unfortunately, she has been betrothed to Columbo, the nephew of the Cardinal, with the consent of the King of Navarre. Desperate, she writes to her fiance in the army asking to be released from her contract, and owing to a misunderstanding, he consents. However, once he realises she was being serious, he is unhappy to say the least, and embarks upon a campaign for revenge.

The most famous name in the cast is RSC stalwart Stephen Boxer, and he does an excellent job as the titular Cardinal, plotting and scheming in the tradition of the best revenge tragedy churchmen. He is matched by Natalie Simpson, who is superb as Rosaura, the spirited heroine.

The plot has several twists and turns, but it’s fairly easy to follow in spite of this. As it’s a revenge tragedy, it’s natural to expect a bloodbath, but all the same the play didn’t quite go as I had expected. There’s plenty of wry humour and I can say that it’s one of the most entertaining plays of this era I’ve ever witnessed.

If I gave star ratings, I’d probably give it five, as it’s just so much fun and so excellently performed. Well done Southwark: probably the most versatile small theatre I know.

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