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The Cardinal at the Southwark Playhouse

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 1st May 2017 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin

Opponents: The Cardinal (Stephen Boxer) and Duchess Rosaura (Natalie Simpson)

Do not I walk upon the teeth of serpents?

The Cardinal was one of the last plays performed before Oliver Cromwell shut down the theatres. Considered one of James Shirley's finest dramas, this satirical revenge tragedy features two strong and witty opponents - the Cardinal (Stephen Boxer) and Duchess Rosaura (Natalie Simpson), who are equally weighted. The play pays reverence to some of the best-known revenge tragedies, most of all The Duchess of Malfi.

The Cardinal uses his influence on the King of Navarre (Ashley Cook) to arrange a marriage between the Duchess and his nephew Don Columbo (Jay Saighal), a fierce warrior who is presently fighting a war against Arragon. The Duchess, however, prefers the more refined and honorable Count D'Alvarez (Marcus Griffiths), and has no intention of marrying a brute. She writes to Columbo, asking to be released from the marriage contract. In his fury, Columbo almost kills the messenger - Antonio (Timothy Speyer) - but in his exaggerated self-esteem comes to think that the Duchess is just taunting him because she misses him so much. Antonio returns with the required release and the Duchess marries Count D'Alvarez. But Columbo returns on their wedding night and murders the Count, swearing that he will kill any future husband of Rosaura's, just as he killed D'Alvarez. Thanks to his war record and his influential uncle, Columbo remains unpunished. The Duchess becomes the ward of the Cardinal and is presumed to have gone mad. Meanwhile Colonel Hernando (Phil Cheadle), who has been publicly humiliated by Columbo, also seeks revenge against the Cardinal and his nephew.

Justin Audibert's production emphasises the satire in Shirley's text and the cast make the most of the dark humour in the play, creating a great rapport with the audience, who are frequently addressed in crowd scenes. The performance begins with a monologue by the Cardinal, played with smooth malevolence by Stephen Boxer. Natalie Simpson's Duchess Rosaura matches the Cardinal in wit and cunning. Phil Cheadle's Hernando is seething with restrained hatred which is finally released in his duel with Columbo, played as a rough brute by Jay Saighal. Timothy Speyer is a joy as Rosaura's amiable secretary Antonio.

The audience is welcomed by the smell of incense as they enter the auditorium. The stage is bare, yet resembles a grand hall or a cathedral (design by Anna Reid), also thanks to the sound design by Max Pappenheim, who composed the atmospheric music. The actors are wearing period costumes with matching weaponry, also beautifully designed by Anna Reid.  

Despite its length, Justin Audibert's atmospheric production is fast-paced and entertaining throughout, including a breathtaking sword fight (devised by Bret Yount) and a stunning masque, choreographed by Natasha Harrison. 

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 27th May 2017

Southwark Playhouse

Running time: 140 minutes including one interval

Photo by Mitzi de Margary

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