The History of Cardenio

After my appetite was whetted by Wednesday’s talk, I attended the performance of The History of Cardenio which took place at the Mary Wallace Theatre in Twickenham. The play uses surviving fragments of Shakespeare’s and Fletcher’s manuscript, and Gary Taylor has added to them, aiming to turn the fragments into a coherent whole.

I found the play amusing and enjoyable, full of betrayal, intrigue and villainy, with a subplot featuring none other than Don Quixote himself. I’m sure an expert would feel differently, but on this first viewing I couldn’t tell the difference between Shakespeare’s lines, Fletcher’s, and Gary Taylor’s. In this respect the adaptation was certainly successful. The amateur cast portrayed their roles well, and the simple set served its purpose amply. I’m glad I took the opportunity to see what is probably Shakespeare’s rarest work.

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Why does Cardenio matter? A talk at Richmond Shakespeare Society

Mary Wallace Theatre

In anticipation of the performance of The History of Cardenio on Sunday, I attended a talk at the performance venue, the Mary Wallace Theatre, by Professor Gary Taylor, the co-author of this version. Professor Taylor has spent years studying Shakespeare and brings that knowledge to bear in his adaptation.

Cardenio was first performed at the court of James I by the King’s Men in early 1613. The name Cardenio is very rare, and there is only one mention of the name in literature prior to this, in Don Quixote, a bestseller at the time by the Spanish author Miguel De Cervantes. This suggests that the play was an adaptation of an episode in the novel. An English translation of the first part of the novel (the second was not published until several years afterwards) had been published in 1612. The History of Cardenio title is important as it is a mistranslation of the Spanish featuring only in the 1612 edition, and not subsequent editions.

The next mention of the play is in 1653, when the Stationers’ Company of London registered the right to print a play, The History of Cardenio, by John Fletcher and William Shakespeare. The attributions in the Stationers’ Register aren’t always correct, so this does not constitute absolute proof that the play was by Fletcher and Shakespeare, but it was definitely based on Don Quixote.

The next reference to the play occurs in 1727, when the Drury Lane Theatre performed Double Falsehood, or The Distrest Lovers. The person responsible, Lewis Theobald, said it was by Shakespeare and based on Don Quixote. He claimed in a preface that he was told that Shakespeare wrote it for his ‘natural daughter’. The provenance of Double Falsehood is still being questioned today. It has been suggested that it was forged, he wrote it himself and passed it off as Shakespeare’s. However, he may well have had an original manuscript which he rewrote and edited. Even Alexander Pope, Theobald’s harshest critic, believed that he had the manuscript. Cardenio is not Double Falsehood. The latter contains a lot of material which is very like Shakespeare and Fletcher, but it also contains a lot of what Taylor frankly terms ‘crap’.

Does Cardenio matter? Taylor argues that it does not matter to Shakespeare’s reputation, or to the reputations of Fletcher and Cervantes. However, it is the only play written by a great playwright which was inspired by Don Quixote. It was also the first time Shakespeare collaborated with John Fletcher, a fruitful partnership that also led to Pericles and The Two Noble Kinsmen. It also acts as a timely reminder that Shakespeare was a European writer, not just an English one. In addition, studying the surviving fragments of Cardenio forces scholars to examine the text word by word, analysing it and thinking about how it might work on stage.

I really enjoyed the talk, and I can’t wait to see The History of Cardenio on Sunday.

Read Not Dead: The Coxcomb

Every year Shakespeare’s Globe puts on a programme of play readings, known as Read Not Dead; thankfully, the new regime hasn’t put paid to them and they are still an important part of the schedule. I normally try to get to one or two a year, and on Sunday I went along to The Coxcomb, an early work by Francis Beaumont and John Fletcher. The play is based on an episode on Cervantes’ Don Quixote. Since 2016 also marks the 400th anniversary of the death of the Spanish author, it’s no wonder it was chosen for performance this year.

The plot of The Coxcomb is convoluted, concerning a man who falls in love with his friend’s wife and is surprised to find that his friend appears quite happy to let him indulge his lust. There is also a subplot involving a runaway couple. It’s not always easy to follow, but it leads to several amusing moments.

The plays are always given out to the actors on the morning of the day they are due to take place; they then spend the day rehearsing them before presenting them to the audience in the afternoon. Apart from the scripts in hand and the odd missed cue, you’d hardly notice, a testament to the skill and commitment of the actors involved. The Coxcomb was no different, with actors giving rounded performances. It was an interesting piece, and well worth the watch.

The Two Noble Kinsmen

2016 marks the four hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, of course, but it also marks 30 years since the opening of the Swan Theatre at the RSC in Stratford. The two plays that opened the house back in 1986 are revived this year: Aphra Behn’s The Rover, and Shakespeare’s late collaboration with John Fletcher, The Two Noble Kinsmen.
Inspired by The Knight’s Tale from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Kinsmen is the story of two cousins, Palamon and Arcite. Fighting to defend their city, Thebes, from attack, they are taken prisoner by Theseus, Duke of Athens. At first resolving to endure their imprisonment taking comfort from one another’s company, their resolve is tested when they see the Duke’s new sister-in-law, Emilia, walking in the garden. When one man is set free and the other escapes, it’s not the end of the story as the pair come to blows over their love for the same woman, leading to tragedy.

I found the play tricky to get into: the opening scenes in which three widowed queens beg Theseus to avenge their husbands’ deaths slightly confused me, but they were necessary to set the scene for the rest of the play, as the reason for Palamon and Alcite’s capture. Once I got into the rhythm of the play, I found it compelling, rich in humour and meaning, helped by Blanche McIntyre’s intelligent direction.

With its Ancient Greek setting and concern with the pairing of Theseus and Hippolyta, the play echoed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for me although the two plays have little in common, really. I also found the scenes following the madness of the Jailer’s Daughter reminiscent of Ophelia in Hamlet, although my programme suggests that it was actually John Fletcher who wrote these scenes. Interesting.

James Corrigan and Jamie Wilkes made Palamon and Arcite believable and sympathetic, showing the complexity of their mixed feelings towards one another. Frances McNamee was very strong as Emilia, conveying the confusion of a woman placed in an impossible situation.

One thing I found surprising for a play written at that time period is its exploration of same-sex relationships, such as the Duke and Pirithous, and Emilia and her maid. As an exploration of different kinds of love it was truly compelling.

It’s an odd play, and it’s not hard, really, to see why it’s rarely produced now. Still, this production shows that there is much worthwhile to be found in it.

Henry VIII; or All Is True

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I’ve been trying for years to see every single Shakespeare play performed, and had almost completed my quest, except for Henry VIII; or All Is True, which eluded me. This play, which tells the story of the king’s quest for a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so that he can marry Anne Boleyn and hopefully produce a longed-for male heir, is hardly ever performed these days – the Globe did it a few years ago, but as that was before I moved to London, I didn’t get a chance to see it.

Thankfully, I found out that a performance would be taking place in Brighton, organised by Dan Wilson, who dreamt up a quest on his 37th birthday to see every Shakespeare play of the traditional canon in live performance. As he couldn’t find a perofmance of this play, he decided to sort one out himself – and I’m very grateful to him, although I do wish he’d done it a few months ago so that I could have completed the canon before my 30th birthday. Still, you can’t have everything!

The play is the only history play in the traditional canon without a battle, and has the dubious honour of being the production responsible for the destruction of the Globe Theatre in 1613, when a cannon shot ignited the thatched roof and burned the building to the ground. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was a popular work, often performed with lavish parades and grand tableaux, but nowadays it is much more rarely performed.

Performed by Droll and Folly Theatre in the Nightingale Room above the Grand Central pub in Brighton, the script-in-hand performance was an entertaining romp through the Bard’s most recent – in terms of content – history play. Duncan Henderson was suitably regal as King Henry, while Nicholas Quirke, who also directed, gave a good performance as Cardinal Wolsey. Peta Taylor was excellent as Katherine of Aragon, who, interestingly, plays a much larger part in the drama than Anne Boleyn (known here as Anne Bullen). I also enjoyed Simon Helyer’s amusing performance as the Lord Chamberlain.

Henry VIII isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but I honestly don’t know why it is performed so rarely as it is. I’m really glad I made the effort to see it: I can finally say I’ve completed the canon.

The Two Noble Kinsmen

This was actually the second production of The Two Noble Kinsmen I’ve seen, but it is performed so rarely that I still felt it worth making the visit to the White Bear theatre in order to see it. This production of William Shakespeare and John Fletcher’s Jacobean play (published 1634) was produced by Instant Classics and directed by David Cottis.

The “noble kinsmen” of the title are cousins Palamon and Arcite, held prisoner by Theseus, Duke of Athens. Despite their closeness, they fall in love with the same woman – Emilia, the Duke’s sister-in-law – and their love turns to hate as they become jealous rivals.

Cavan Clarke and Richard Blackman give very strong performances as Arcite and Palamon, developing their different characters and convincing as two formerly-close friends who are now enemies. I also liked Amy Tobias as the Jailer’s Daughter, possibly the play’s most interesting character, whose love for Palamon leads to some powerful monologues and tragic decisions.

This is a very strange play, almost comedic in the swiftness with which the cousins become rivals but ultimately tragic. There are references to Greek mythology as the characters invoke Mars and Venus, and the plot isn’t predictable. A curiosity, rather than one of Shakespeare’s masterpieces, it’s nevertheless worth a watch.

The Two Noble Kinsmen

After thoroughly enjoying The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the Brockley Jack Studio Theatre last week, I was excited about the second part of the ‘Bookends’ programme – Shakespeare’s first and last plays shown in repertoire. The Tempest is Shakespeare’s last solo-authored play, but The Two Noble Kinsmen is said to have been co-written with John Fletcher.

Like last week’s play, the story covers two men – in this case, cousins or ‘kinsmen’ – who fall in love with the same woman. Palamon and Arcite are prisoners of Theseus, Duke of Athens, sustained in their imprisonment by their care for one another – but their friendship sours when they both glimpse Emilia, sister-in-law of Theseus, from the prison window. Palamon claims precedence, having seen her first, but Arcite is the one who manages to get out of the prison and try out his charms on her. Palamon is released by the prison warder’s daughter who is in love with him, and the two men embark on a bitter competition to win the lady, with their old friendship occasionally resurfacing.

Eliot Fitzpatrick and Fraser Wall play the kinsmen well, fighting over the same woman as they did in Verona, while Tom Durrant Pritchard is suitably commanding as Theseus. Laura Elsworth as the jailer’s daughter, who releases Palamon out of love, is superbly affecting in her scenes, her distraught solo monologues a stark contrast to the two kinsmen and their interactions with the other characters, who have all but forgotten her.

Kinsmen is a darker play than Verona, and this is reflected in the atmosphere: low lighting, muted music, and a sparse set. The ending, too, is less ambiguous and more unequivocally tragic than the earlier play, though I actually preferred the former, offering as it did greater opportunity for the theatre company – Perfect Shadow Mingled Yarn – to leave their own mark on the production. Director Matthew Monaghan, however, still manages to do a good job, with several effective and disturbing scenes, particularly the hard-hitting rape scene. The production has a lot to say about the role of women in the play: their views are largely ignored in favour of the male characters. Emilia is seen as a prize to be won, with both cousins fighting over her in ignorance at her own wishes, and both refusing to give up on her even if she should choose the other. To my mind, neither of the kinsmen were particularly noble, and in fact most of the male characters were almost as dislikeable, with the Duke of Athens the only one for whom I felt real pity, surrounded by stubbornness on all sides and forced to make tough decisions.

I am pleased that I’ve been able to tick The Two Noble Kinsmen off my list, and even more pleased that I’ve been able to do so watching such an accomplished production. I hope to see more of Perfect Shadow Mingled Yarn in the future.