The chance to see a new Shakespeare play – even one where the authorship is the subject of much heated academic debate – is a rare treat for the average theatregoer. When it’s delivered in fine style in an exceptionally accomplished production by the Royal Shakespeare Company, you know you’re in for something really rather special.
Whether or not this Cardenio is derived from something that’s authentically Shakespearean or is rather more of a well-constructed later pastiche does not really matter. It delivers a satisfying evening in the theatre. There are elements that echo narrative strands and characters from plays as diverse as Cymbeline and King Lear and overall I found it a close cousin to All's Well That Ends Well. Putting the question of the provenance of the text, what should really matter is that director Gregory Doran and his team have pulled together something that is fresh (whilst remaining familiar), interesting, touching and frequently very funny.
The intimacy of the Swan is put to good use with a set (by Niki Turner) that evokes the Spanish setting perfectly. Some excellent music from ]Paul Englishby] combines with Tim Mitchell's stunning lighting to create some memorable sequences that satisfy all the senses.
I will refrain from going into detail about the plot – as I feel it’s so rare that you get the opportunity to experience a new text like this. Suffice it to say that it contains a broad range of characters and settings – and blends comedic and tragic elements together well.
I suspect by casting Oliver Rix in the title role, Doran has set a talented young man on the path to future stardom. He has a natural air, strong physicality, a keen sense of language and a winning way that will see him go far with a company such as the RSC. I can already imagine that he might be lined up for roles such as Orlando in As You Like It and Edgar in a future King Lear. He is well matched by a very moving Luscinda from Lucy Briggs-Owen and a great turn from Alex Hassell as the redeemably villainous Fernando. Christopher Godwin comes close to stealing the show with a warmly comic reading of Don Camilo – he shows the younger members of the ensemble what can be achieved with a relatively small role.
There are a few pacing issues – mainly in the first half – but I’m confident that these will be resolved as the season progresses. For me, this is the epitome of what companies like the RSC should be doing. It’s a brave experiment and one that succeeds beyond any reasonable expectation.