The Cardinal

  • Drama
  • By James Shirley
  • Directed by Justin Audibert
  • Cast includes Natalie Simpson and Stephen Boxer
  • Southwark Playhouse, London
  • Until 27th May 2017
  • Review by Luke Davies
  • 5 May 2017
The Cardinal
4.0Reviewer's Rating

The Cardinal was one of the last plays to be performed in London before Oliver Cromwell’s government introduced an act for the suppression of stage plays in 1642. Though it’s post-Jacobean, it sounds and feels like a revenge play – strongly evocative of Kyd and Middleton.

It tells the story of a corrupt Cardinal, who in a bid for fame attempts to persuade the King of Navarre to have his nephew Columbo marry a powerful Duchess. The Duchess in question objects to the match, being in love with Count D’Alvarez – and through cunning ensures that the Cardinal’s plans are foiled, and her marriage with D’Alvarez can go ahead. Neither Columbo nor the Cardinal are happy about this, and things don’t end well for the Duchess…

It’s a curious play: it has (in common with other revenge plays) a refreshingly straightforward narrative trajectory, but it’s not as bloody-minded (even if the bodies do pile up), and it lacks the spiky, imaginative verbal landscape you usually associate with the genre. It’s probably what Jurassic World is to Jurassic Park – a genre rehash that somehow misses the spirit of the original…

The final few scenes emblematise its shortcomings: its bursting with tragic mishaps that are either unintentionally dumb or bizarre attempts at humour in an almost postmodern attempt to undermine the seriousness of everything that has so far happened. One of the weirdest endings to a play I’ve ever seen.

Still, it’s an engaging production. And Justin Audibert’s direction is solid: a minimalist stage design, unfussy staging and strong performances all round. Natalie Simpson is excellent as the Duchess, managing to make an antiquated text accessible and relatable. And Stephen Boxer is great fun as the devious Cardinal.

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