The Cardinal, Southwark Playhouse

Within 50 years of Shakespeare’s death, playwriting was changing quickly. Less flowery language and more powerful female characters are prominent in James Shirley’s rarely-staged The Cardinal, written in 1641. The plot is more streamlined, but some of the outdoor playhouse performance conventions linger along with the grandness of the king’s court. The story proudly flaunts influence from earlier revenge tragedies and is no less bloody, but easier to follow than some of those on stage a few decades or so earlier. In Southwark Playhouse’s smaller space with historical costumes, Justin Audibert’s production evokes the intimate atmosphere of indoor playhouses that were beginning to take over towards the end of Shakespeare’s career.

Though Shakespeare & Co. were no strangers to pivotal female characters, Duchess Rosaura is very much the lead. She is betrothed to Columbo, nephew of the Cardinal of Navarre, whom she doesn’t love. When the king sends him abroad to lead the army to victory, the duchess writes to him and begs her freedom. Thinking that she is testing his trust, Colombo concedes and the duchess marries the long-admired Count D’Alvarez. Though the king gives his permission for the marriage, the cardinal is incensed. Angered by her deceit, Columbo murders Alvarez at the wedding reception. This triggers a chain of manipulation and lies that end in tragedy.

Shirley’s script, with its echoes of Hamlet, Othello and The Spanish Tragedy, is less philosophical and more action. Whilst this makes it easy to follow and immediately engaging, the characters are more generally more limited in their scope for interpretation – the duchess is very much an exception. It’s clearly an example of popular theatre pandering to a hankering for blood and guts rather than anything more substantial.

Audibert and his cast nail the script’s varying pace and energy, and confidently use direct address to bring out the characters’ vulnerability and scheming, as well as moments of needed comedy. There’s a great combination of vibrancy and intimacy at work; even though the cast never go into the audience, they regularly draw us into the action. This production further cements Audibert’s reputation for staging classical theatre and epic stories with flare and sensitivity.

Natalie Simpson is the emotionally subtle duchess who genuinely appears to love Columbo (a fiery Jay Saighal) until she later rendezvous with Alvarez (Marcus Griffiths). Their chemistry is undeniable, and Columbo’s short temper reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Hotspur is sensibly deterring. Stephen Boxer is the serpentine Cardinal who betrays a clear bias against the Catholic church in a country only solidly Protestant for a couple of generations. The rest of the cast are excellent – there is no weak link in either characterisation or handling the text.

There are a few garments that don’t quite fit the period costume scheme, but not so much so that they’re a huge distraction. The set has a religious austerity and there is no furniture which gives the cast freedom of movement on the small stage but some scenes would be better served with furniture.

Whilst The Cardinal doesn’t fully deserve its obscurity, it’s evidently a less substantial text that its more well-known predecessors. This is a well-performed production with a focus on the nuances of the story – it engages, even if it lacks the depth of the Elizabethan and Jacobean plays.

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The Cardinal runs through 27 May.

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