?The Warehouse Theatre, well known for staging new European plays, has a different sort of premiere on its hands. It’s a new Shakespeare... or is it? ‘Cardenio’ is a mirage of a play, the lost text attributed to Shakespeare and John Fletcher. But that’s just the start of the story: in the early 18th century a playwright called Lewis Theobald published ‘Double Falsehood’ which he claimed to have based on the original ‘Cardenio’ manuscripts. This play gained new respectability when Arden published a 2010 edition, and it will now reopen the RSC’s Swan Theatre. So what is the play the Warehouse describe as “’Cardenio’ by Shakespeare, Fletcher and Thomas Middleton”? It is yet another version, a play also called ‘The Second Maid’s Tragedy’ and usually attributed to Middleton. In 1990, a handwriting expert claimed to have identified Shakespeare’s scrawl on the manuscript, but his claims have not been widely accepted.
This is fascinating stuff for students of the Shakespeare apocrypha, but the play deserves to be judged on its own merits. Jonathan Busby directs, and has stripped the text down to create a lean, highly watchable version. From the opening scenes - a usurper seizes a rightful king’s throne, and covets his lover - it is clear that this is classic Jacobean tragedy, speciality of Middleton. The production is shoestring, but the cast are consistently impressive, giving convincing life to characters tormented by lust, hate, and jealousy. Paloma Oakenfold, new out of drama school, is the stand-out performer, playing Cardenio’s lover Luscinda with an assurance that suggests we will be seeing her again soon. Her decision to die rather than become King Fernando’s mistress is the play’s pivotal moment. Around it a tragedy of spectacular proportions, even for the era, plays out.
Of the nine-strong cast, seven lie dead at the curtain, including five in the space of a single, short scene. Add in adultery, revenge, suicide, impalement, poisoned daggers, poisoned lipstick, multiple stabbing, a shooting and grave-robbing and you have the very definition of entertainment. But the crowning scene is almost too much, even for the modern stage. Suffice to say that when Fernando calls for a lantern, a pickaxe and the keys to the cathedral crypt, he is not going there to pray.
Regardless of whether this has anything to do with Shakespeare, ‘Cardenio’ is an enjoyable example of its genre, and thoroughly deserves a revival. It is greatly to the Warehouse’s credit that Croydon is the only place for Shakespeare scholars to be right now, not Stratford.
By Tom Bolton
Cardenio is at the Warehouse Theatre, Croydon until 21 November, tickets £12 (£10 on Thursdays)