Writer: James Shirley
Director: Justin Audibert
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
Revenge, pride, political ambition, temper and strategy swirl around each other in this 1641 play, creating an entertaining and provocative picture but not yet a tightly woven tapestry.
It will be tempting to draw links with any play on political intrigue to modern times, and with such power-plays at the top level of government as we have now this is almost doubly so. Congratulations then to the team who have refrained from labouring the point and presented a take on an old work that feels springy and fresh while staying true to the Caroline original.
The eponymous Cardinal has the ear of the king of Navarre, and is using it to advance his own people, policies and profit. His nephew Columbo has been engaged to the Duchess Rosaura by the King’s gift, though her heart and fate rests with Count D’Alvarez. When Columbo is sent as leader of the army to fight a war, Rosuara takes her chance at freedom, gains Columbo’s agreement to relinquish his claim on her and quickly takes Alvarez up the aisle. Columbo, being a man of pride and violence, murders Alvarez at the wedding feast and from there we see the Cardinal’s carefully drafted court script torn up as the ramifications multiply.
It’s a court tragedy, yes. There’s the usual comedic foil with the Duchess’ secretary capering around and there’s some nice incidental subplots showing the pace of court life continues throughout whatever private dramas the main protagonists may be facing. Shirley’s attention to this detail and the richness of the context the drama sits is a real boon to the production.
Where it falls down a little is also one of the play’s strongest points. The language is, as you’d expect, dense and quite complex. It’s not generally a problem, but there are parts where some characters just love to hear themselves speak where it gets a bit much. Kudos to Columbo who shouts “no poetry” at the secretary when he goes off on a stream like this. The strength it brings is in some beautifully crafted lines and deliciously vivid images – there’s a golden seam of wit running throughout the whole thing.
With varying degrees of success that wit is carried off well. As the Cardinal, Stephen Boxer is a louche schemer, purring his threats and going overboard in a pastiche of contrition at his nephew’s crimes. He’s matched by the steel of Natalie Simpson’s Duchess, a calculating and determined woman showing excellent survival skills and determination to meet her goals (debate over her tactics is welcomed, but there’s no denying she pursues what she wants with readiness). Other highlights are Paul Westwood as the valiant Hernando, and Jay Saighal as the swaggering bully Columbo.
A simple, clean set from Anna Reid and minimal props serve the dialogue-heavy script and the small space well. The small size adds an air of combustibility to the production, seen in the great use of movement throughout, capped off by a genuinely fantastic sword duel between Hernando and Columbo, with the fight directed by Bret Yount and movement by Natasha Harrison.
Justin Audibert keeps the pace tight, the action thrilling and everyone on their toes. It’s an enjoyable piece, one that should keep you talking excitedly in the bar after and will, as said before, allow for some good current affairs allegories to be drawn. There’s not really enough here for it to be a highlight of the calendar, but as an exercise to open yourself up to older theatre it’s ideal.
Runs until 27 May 2017 | Image: Mitzi de Margary