Stephen Boxer and Natalie Simpson, image by Mitzi de Margary
If James Shirley’s The Cardinal has been performed since 1641, it would be a surprise. Prolific in his time, Shirley’s career was cut off by the Civil War and he seems to have been forgotten. The only major appearance of his work in recent times was the RSC’s production of Hyde Park in the second Swan season, back in 1987. Justin Audibert and the Southwark Playhouse deserve credit for reviving The Cardinal, reputed to be Shirley’s best play. It turns out to be a brutal revenge tragedy with a particularly uncompromising lead role for a woman, the implacable Duchess Rosaura.
The Cardinal works well in the tiny second auditorium at Southwark, with nothing more than Anna Reid’s concrete slabs, an incense-heavy atmosphere and Max Pappenheim’s sound design to evoke palaces and cloisters. The setting is the world of Jacobean revenge, and all the elements are in place – a foolish king, a thwarted lover, his evil rival – plus Stephen Boxer’s smooth plotting Cardinal. Natalie Simpson, fresh from Ophelia and Cordelia for the RSC, plays Rosaura. With her two gentlewomen drawn along in her wake, she refuses the king’s choice of husband, and tells the Cardinal what she thinks of him. Naturally, by the end of the play many people are dead and there is a delicious gruesome twist to the carnage.
Simpsons plays Rosaura with crowd-pleasing touches, a reasonable woman with a troubling tendency to commission murder. Death overhangs the play from the start, characters soon discussing who is going to the “unknown other world”. Boxer’s Cardinal is a smooth operator, easily baffling the naive king and meeting his match only in Rosaura. She will stop at nothing to marry the man she wants, and to gain revenge. It is hard not to root for her as she calls out the corrupt Cardinal, demands justice against his murderous nephew (played by Jay Saighal) and, when denied, feigns madness and trades her body to have the perpetrators done away with.
The evening is thoroughly entertaining – these Jacobeans knew how to enjoy themselves, and it is a treat to see such top-level classical actors performing up close. Timothy Speyer add humour playing a short and twinkly secretary. Justin Audibert delivers a seriously classy production which, although perhaps keeping too tight a lid on events as they spiral out of control, is nevertheless a treat.