On first hearing about it, it seemed to me that the reconstruction of a lost play by Shakespeare and Fletcher, via an eighteenth century text by â€œpiddling Theobaldâ€ and company collaborations from a literal translation from Spanish, would be little more than a muddled, inconsistent hotchpotch.
I was wrong. Cardenio is gripping. Itâ€™s splendidly acted, beautifully costumed and extremely well paced. In fact the RSC has unearthed a new star and given the audience the pleasure of seeing two splendid young actresses.
Much of the plot has familiar early Jacobean features. Elder brother, Don Pedro, is a fine successor to his father as Duke while younger brother, Don Fernando, is a profligate who rapes Â the farmerâ€™s daughter, Dorotea, with whom he is obsessed, Â but then betrays his friend, Cardenio, by threatening to rape the woman Cardenio loves, Luscinda, and then arranges to marry her. Cardenio goes mad, Luscinda hides in a convent and Dorotea runs off to find Ferdando. All is resolved at the end. Sort of.
Greg Doran enlivens the fast moving production with music and dances (very good they are, too) and some Spanish carnival elements including fireworks which make the audience jump.
Oliver Rix is superb as Cardenio. Itâ€™s hard to believe that this is his professional stage debut. Vocally rich and varied (I heard every word â€“ unusual for me with my ageing ears), physically agile, fit chested (lots ofÂ flesh to be seen) and brilliant in the mad scenes. No silly walks here. He is mentally ill, and convincingly. Lucy Briggs-Owen is very fine, too. She has lots to do and say and manages to project a range of emotions, mirrored in some beautiful movement. She also has the best dress you are likely to see this year. I was mightily impressed with Pippa Nixon as Dorotea, too. She has a ridiculously difficult role because she is the slighted woman who disguises herself as a boy in order to pursue the toad who promised to marry her. As Greg Doran says in the programme, it is very difficult for the audience to accept that she displays any sense in pursuing Fernando, especially as Alex Hassell plays him as an immoral shit bordering on the evil. It is even more difficult to believe it when she professes undying love for Fernando at the end, but there is something about this Dorotea that convinces. She is psychologically complex rather than a misguided fool.
I loved the ending of the play. The reconciliation scene is a hanky moment but the audience has mixed emotions, too, or at least I did. I tried at the time to explain Doroteaâ€™s loyalty as some sort of religious allegory but Iâ€™m not sure this is right. Itâ€™s more like the typical Shakespearian ending where all seems happy but youâ€™re left with things to think and worry about. In King Lear I am left dubious about Edgarâ€™s whitewash speech at the end, in The Merchant of Venice I notice there is no happy solution for Antonio and in The Winterâ€™s Tale I remember that Leontesâ€™s son is still dead. This is the stuff that Shakespeare is made of.
Go see it.
You will get a warm welcome, too, at Moss Cottage if you do.