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April 28, 2011

Shakespeare Franchis'd - Or Lincoln Allison on why Cardenio is more like Blackadder meets The Three Amigos than Shakespeare

Posted by Lincoln Allison

directed by Gregory Doran
Royal Shakespeare Company
Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
in repertory 14 April - 6 October 2011

Cardenio: Shakespeare's "Lost Play" Re-Imagined
Pp. 116. London: Nick Hern Books, 2011
Paperback, 9.99

I go back a long way with the RSC and I've been to a few Shakespeare premiers in my time, including Two Noble Kinsmen (as recognised as the work of Shakespeare and Fletcher), Thomas More (with scenes by Shakespeare) and Edward III (possibly even mainly by Shakespeare).

In the background there has always been talk of Cardenio, the "lost" play. The optimistic theory is that it was written by Shakespeare and John Fletcher in 1512-13 and was based on an episode in the new translation of Don Quixote. It did not appear in the First Folio, but was published as the work of Shakespeare in 1653, albeit by a publisher (Humphrey Moseley) who was notorious for optimistic attributions. It then reappears in the eighteenth century variously as The History of Cardenio and Double Falshood (sic) and has been cobbled together several times since, including last year in Croydon.

Pretty thin, you might think, but the length of time elapsed and the relationship between oral and written records has similarities to the more plausible claims of the Gospels. But even an optimist would have to see it as Team Shakespeare rather than solely authored: W. Shakespeare (Captain), J. Fletcher (Vice-Captain), M. Cervantes (Overseas Player), G. Doran (Tour Manager) etc.

The story is packed with the familiar ingredients of the period; an attractive rotter of a prince called Fernando, his worthy and boring brother Pedro, fathers whose ambitions force daughters into unwanted marriages, a rape/seduction (which provides the principal moral ambiguity of the tale), madness, revenge, spurned but faithful wives, simple rustics, cross-dressing and so on.

If it is Shakespeare it has a unique Spanish setting and Greg Doran places it unequivocally in seventeenth century Andalucia complete with guitars, moonlight and fabulous costumes, silk and leather predominating. This is a correct decision and in line with the unwritten rule that if it is new or unusual you are allowed the appropriate fancy dress, whereas if it is Hamlet (for instance) you have to set it in a spaceship or the Microsoft boardroom. The actors are not the biggest names in the profession, but very good. Alex Hassell is excellent as the rotter Fernando and looks spookily like a young Oliver Reed, but I was most intrigued by the performance of Lucy Briggs-Owen as Luscinda: she has an eccentric, mannered, intense style which some might consider over-acting (it verges on being reminiscent of Miranda Richards' Queenie in Blackadder at times), but might also land her starring roles.

One of the pleasures of being an RSC fan is to watch the youth team in action and to speculate about who might become a household name in ten years time. It isn't always easy: John Nettles, globally famous as Inspector Barnaby, was one of the least outstanding figures on a Stratford stage.

So - does it seem like something written by William Shakespeare? No, it does not; there are massive obstacles to belief. The first is the language. Although it might occasionally pass as Shakespeare, it is more often just faux-Jacobean and sometimes merely anachronistic, even to a non-scholar. Take this passage, where Cardenio is banging on about his relationship with Luscinda:

I want no health without Luscinda, but
Since she forsakes me I must die. For as
She shows by her unfaithfulness that she
Desires my ruin, by suffering will I
Strive to convince her that a better fate
Did I deserve than false perjury.
Are these the right words? Is it even verse? I would suggest that this particular passage is the sort of stuff you might get if you asked good A level students to write "Shakespearian" verse.

Even more important is the lack of originality. The real Shakespeare handles ideas without commitment, but with a brilliant capacity for edginess and clarity. Even minor works like Timon of Athens and The Comedy of Errors have a far more sceptical, challenging take on their material than is ever evident here. Cardenio is written from a more completely conventional religious and moral view than Shakespeare ever writes. It is ersatz Jacobean rather than ersatz Shakespeare, a conventional melodrama and morality play rather than anything original - the middling common denominator of the theatre of its time. At this point it should be restated that the mission statement of the Swan theatre when it opened a quarter of a century ago was to explore the work of Shakespeare's contemporaries rather than his own plays.

And it is enormous fun - rollicking, full of plot and energy and humour and coming to a triumphant climax. The audience cheered at the end and the risible components can be seen as assets if you are simply prepared to lie back and enjoy it. "Blackadder meets The Three Amigos" muttered my companion and you did feel that somewhere down the batting order for Team Shakespeare were B. Elton and E. Wise.

I left the theatre thinking about a Shakespeare franchise as an extension of Team Shakespeare. Just as Harry Ramsden's chain of fish and chip shops produce something palatable, but nowhere near as good as in his original Guiseley restaurant, so the whole thing would be bigger rather than better. Get the script team together and we could soon have: John F. Kennedy, a Tragedy by School of Shakespeare. And Blair and Brown: a Comedy by the same lot.

Lincoln Allison retired from an academic career at the University of Warwick in 2004 - and again in 2008 - to become a freelance writer and broadcaster. He remains Emeritus Reader in Politics at the University of Warwick and Visiting Professor in sport and leisure at the University of Brighton. His latest book is My Father's Bookcase: A Version of the History of Ideas.

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