Southwark Playhouse, London – until 27 May 2017
What wonders, sir, are these? How beauteous fringe theatre is! We Tuesday matinee-goers, paying peanuts for the smaller space in an unlovely hangar near the Elephant, hardly deserved such riches. We got an impeccably mischievous RSC-grade performance in a long-forgotten play, a voice from the turbulent London of Charles I rising ragingly again, with Stephen Boxer himself in Cardinal’s robes (albeit in need of an iron). This actor, seen nicely close-up in the small room rather than across a vast Stratford arena, can be studied rewardingly as he deploys a pleasing ability to express villainy as convincingly with one furry eyebrow as with a crazed ranting fury. Around him a fine – and mainly young – cast must be inspired to what will certainly be higher things. Not least Natalie Simpson as a fiery, passionate wronged noblewoman with a vivid emotional range (the part needs it, they were starting to take women ever more seriously . Simpson’s energetically un-corset-bound body-language brings her dizzyingly close to any modern miss appalled at being betrothed to the wrong bloke and plotting to cut loose.. And that is as it should be.
This rumbustious tale of old Navarre, unseen in London for nearly four centuries, was a victim of the closure of theatres under Cromwell. It belongs firmly to the English Protestant tradition of Wicked-Foreign-Papists plays – like Webster’s Duchess of Malfi. And in that genre it is a cracker: taut, clear, personal rather than political, revolving round a strong woman. It is unusual to have to avoid spoilers in a 1641 play, but since John Shirley’s revenge tragedy hasn’t been seen – certainly in London – its Blackfriars opening after which the puritan axe fell, I will give little away.
Just know that the Cardinal wants the rich Duchess Rosaura to marry his warlike nephew Columbo. She prefers Don Alvarez and begs to be released from the expected marriage, and the Cardinal is not happy about that. The King (Ashley Cook) is prone to trust far too many people who let him down – possibly Mr Shirley was sucking up to Charles I here. Rosie Watt and Sophia Carr-Gomm are entertaining, and involved, companions of the Duchess; Phil Cheadle a pugnacious Hernando, who hates Columbo (Jay Saighal a turkey-cock of offended hyperactivity). Expect masked and murderous revellers, blood on a bridal robe, deceit and anger and letters , lovers betrayed, two cracking sword and dagger fights (it’s a very small space, we flinched in the front row). There’s bloodshed ,spitting, a barely thwarted rape and a poisoning so complicated it makes the end of Hamlet look straightforward.
All shall unfold before you before the last corpse gasps its last, and a storm of applause meets them all as led by the wonderful Boxer they rise from the floor to a well deserved bow. It may be theatrical archaeology, but by God it’s entertaining. Honour to Troupe, director Justin Audibert (another RSC chap) and the Southwark. With luck someone will pick up the play for a candlelit reprise at the Wanamaker. It’s made for it…