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Shakespeare, Who? Collaborating on The History of Cardenio

by on 20 March 2017

The History of Cardenio

by William Shakespeare, John Fletcher and Prof. Gary Taylor

Richmond Shakespeare Society and Cutpurse

at The Mary Wallace Theatre, Twickenham, 18th to 25th March

Review by Georgia Renwick

You would be forgiven for doing a double take upon reading the poster for the latest production from the Richmond Shakespeare Society (RSS): a premiere?  Of a Shakespeare play?  And who’s this Cardenio character?  Your eye might then be drawn to the other two authors below the play’s title, John Fletcher, a fellow 17th century playwright, and Gary Taylor, the highly regarded American Shakespeare scholar, editor of the New Oxford Shakespeare.  Though nearly 400 years separate them, this unlikely triad of authors (and others besides) have “collaborated” in a historic UK premiere of this new and “most authentic” version of Shakespeare’s lost play.


The one consensus that has been reached in the world of Shakespeare scholarship, is that no consensus can ever be reached, but yet it is virtually indisputable in modern scholarship that the man we know as William Shakespeare, was not one man at all.  Shakespeare had collaborators and is credited alongside Fletcher, who succeeded him as the house playwright for The King’s Men, with The History of Cardenio in a 1653 register of soon to be published plays.  However, for reasons it is now impossible to discern, it never appeared in print and was “lost”, not an uncommon fate for a play of this period.  Certainly, more work was lost than now survives.  In 1727 the play was picked up again by writer Lewis Theobald.  Now widely credited as being the first ever Shakespeare scholar, he attempted to re-work Shakespeare and Fletcher’s play, naming it Double Falsehood, and it is here Gary Taylor comes in.  For over 20 years Taylor has been unpicking this surviving version of Cardenio, uncovering the cracks in the text that Theobald messily plastered over with his 18th century morality, and bringing his own material to the mix.  Using the latest in text technologies and the breadth of his knowledge and scholarship, Taylor has drafted his own “creative reconstruction”.  To use Mark Aspen’s analogy from his introductory piece earlier this month, Taylor has “piec[ed] together shards of an Etruscan urn to create, not a reproduction, but the real thing assembled with a little clay for the missing bits… to make Shakespeare’s The History of Cardenio live again”.  The US premiere was staged in May of 2012 at Indiana University and Purdue University-Indianapolis (IUPUI), and attended by Twickenham based and established RSS director, Gerald Baker.  He offered his feedback – and Taylor asked for ours this afternoon – and became an intrinsic part of the project to further develop the script and stage it here in London.

The truth is that a truly “authentic” Shakespearian History of Cardenio can never be achieved, but does that matter?  Or to take a more postmodern approach, who cares about this Shakespeare character and what he did or did not write?  Is the play itself actually any good?

Have the combined efforts of the authors created or uncovered a new Hamlet?  Not quite, but nevertheless like any of the most gripping 17th century dramas there is a wealth of romance, a dose of death, more than one case of mistaken identity and a bucket load of bawdy laughs to boot.  The plot is based on a strand of Miguel de Cervantes” classic Spanish novel Don Quixote, of which Thomas Shelton’s English translation was first available in 1612, making it a popular and contemporary tale at the time the play would have been performed.

Cardenio March 2017_0082

Emma Lambie as Lucinda and Matthew Tyrrell as Cardenio.  Photograph by Simone Sutton

It follows the story of two pairs of lovers.  The earnest and poetic Cardenio (Matthew Tyrrell) who would “rather read than ride” into battle, is engaged to Lucinda (Emma Lambie), whilst his friend Fernando the Duke’s younger son (Hugh Cox), has fallen for the charms of strong-minded farmer’s daughter Violenta (Shana de Carsignac) who can “crow loader than any cock”.  However, when Fernando learns of and meets his friend’s betrothed he desires her too, and sets in motion a trail of betrayals and falsehoods that sends the court into disarray.  Caught up in this lovers” tangle is the old schoolmaster, Quesada (Christopher Yates) who, tired of his books, takes his sprightly young squire (Iona Twiston-Davies) on an ill-fated quest to kill giants and save princesses, high in the mountains.  Allegiances are tested and power struggles ensue between parent and child, master and servant, the old and the young, the mad and the sane, between races, and between the sexes.  “How can I be obedient and wise, too?” Lucinda begs of her stern and ubiquitous father, Don Bernard (John Kirchner), another exasperated daughter of one of Shakespeare’s missing mothers, whilst the young men are free to be led by “passions reign[ing] in their blood”.  “Every man’s thing is urgent”, Marcela, Lucinda’s maid (Bibi Lucille) wittily observes; as any reader of Shakespearean works will understand, it is often the servants who make the most astute observations.  Other Shakespearean tropes are scattered throughout, with thematic references in particular to Shakespeare’s later plays The Tempest and King Lear, discerning audience members may pick out countless other allusions.

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Shana de Carsignac as Violenta.  Photograph by Simone Sutton

Tyrrell makes for a spirited and romantic Cardenio, and the reciprocation of love from Lambie as Lucinda is charming and sweet, but it is de Carsignac”s performance as Violenta that stands out as the emotional heart of the play.  She descends with tragic grace from fierce and feisty to a heartstring-tugging vulnerability, given greater emotional intensity played across from the charismatic and engaging Cox as the unfaithful Fernando.

The more senior members of the cast make the most of some deliciously funny dialogue, particularly in a stand-out scene surrounding nationality, namely our “acorn” English nation, discussed over a game of bowls.  Yates finds a ponderous, Polonious-esque quality in the old schoolmaster Quesada, which is well balanced with Twiston-Davies snappy Sancho.  Out of all the cast her quips exhibit the best comic timing.  The overall pace is in places a little slow and indulgent, but who are we not to indulge?  When it is an unfamiliar Shakespearian text we are watching here, it is certainly welcome in places to land those crucial plot points.

The period costumes are a real stand-out element.  Although consistently good, RSS have really excelled themselves on this occasion.  The rich reds and greens and dramatic blacks pop especially well against the set (designed by Barry Evans) which is dominated by an abstract mountain backdrop painted in pale shades of blue, yellow and green.  This backdrop remains consistent throughout.

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Photograph by Simone Sutton

The minimalised scenery and stage furniture makes for slick scene changes, although with nowhere to go the actors are left a little limited in terms of movement and at times it can feel quite static.  It would be interesting to see this production progress into a larger and more fully developed set.

There are a few welcome instances of music to accompany verse (and watch out for the unexpected dance number!) one of which, “Wood, rocks and mountains” was composed by Robert Johnson for the original staging in 1612/13, but the others of which are original compositions.  This is another aspect of the production ripe for further exploration and development.

As Taylor himself freely admits, we will never know exactly how much of Cardenio we owe to our Bard but regardless this is an enjoyable piece of theatre, at once comforting in its strange familiarity and yet exciting in its freshness and originality.  Besides posing an interesting debate, the authorship doesn’t define our enjoyment, and Taylor and Baker are deserving of congratulations for their contributions respectively.  Perhaps in another 400 years we’ll still be enjoying 17th century dramas and asking “Shakespeare, who?”.

Georgia Renwick

March 2017


From → Drama, Reviews

  1. Gerald Baker permalink

    I’m immensely grateful to Georgia Renwick for this review of my production. There are two factual corrections needed that I hope you can take up from this comment and add at the bottom of the review, if not in its body. The world premiere of the Taylor reconstruction was in Wellington, New Zealand in 2009: Indianapolis was only the American premiere. And the line about ‘Every man’s thing’ is spoken by the character Marcela, who is Lucinda’s maid, and the performer who makes the line so memorable is Bibi Lucile.
    But apart from this, I appreciate Georgia’s remarks and attention and comprehensiveness very much indeed.
    With regards,
    Gerald Baker

    • Hello Gerald
      Have changed the text as indicated.
      Many thanks for pointing out.

  2. Jettie H. van den Boom permalink

    ” And who’s this Cardenio character?”. This character was written by Francis Beaumont & John Fletcher for the masterwork of Don Quixote in 1603, while using the library and help of Robert ‘Bruce’ Cotton. They were part of the Sireniacal Gentlemen. ( incl. Ben Jonson and John Donne) “The two friends” wrote afterwords also the play “Cardenio”, but Francis Bacon was not amused, because the secret members had promised not to reveal their identity in writing the DQ. Shakespeare was not involved.

  3. I really like looking through an article that will make people think.
    Also, thank you for allowing for me to comment!

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