These days most people would consider theatre-going to be a middle-class pastime but during the period of English Renaissance Theatre, which ran from the mid 1500s until the Puritans secured the closure of theatres in the early 1600s, the playwrights of the day had to cater to all tastes. The massed crowds at London’s venues expected intrigue, violence, mayhem and perhaps a little romance to spice up their evening’s entertainment, much like the audiences at your local multiplex today. The Rose Theatre on Park St in Southwark is currently serving up one of these spectacles – a production of ‘Cardenio’ by the Aporia Theatre Collective, which runs until 29 September.
Cardenio is an odd beast – one of the plays that survives from this period without a named author. Over the last century or so academics have speculated that it could be work of William Shakespeare, John Fletcher, Thomas Middleton or indeed a collaboration between two (or indeed all three) of these prominent 16th century playwrights – no-one really knows for sure. It tells the tale of Fernando, a jealous and manipulative king, and the group of lesser nobles and servants within his orbit. He desires strong-willed Luscinda but she is the lover of Cardenio, the nobleman of the title. As the king exerts his influence alongside Luscinda’s mother Helvetia, a series of encounters spiral out of control which ultimately leads to an unsuccessful suicide pact between the star-crossed lovers as well as the gruesome deaths of most of the other players – the Elizabethan audience must have been roaring their approval by the end…
Director Jonathan Busby has given Cardenio an unusual twist by setting it in feudal Japan with samurai swords, sepuku and silk robes replacing Italian finery, but he’s taken no such liberties with the script. Cardenio requires the audience to open their ears and minds to the intricacies of Elizabethan language – you will have to polish up your prithys, wherefores and mayhaps if you want to enjoy the play fully. Regarding the cast, I must say that I was particularly impressed by Ryan Burkwood who plays a deliciously mad Fernando, while Matt Gibbs is perfectly suited to the role of the stern and strong-jawed hero Cardenio. Also notable are very creditable performances from both Robert Lonergan as Anselmo and Nathan Jones as adulterer Lotario.
My only criticism of this production of Cardenio, and its a minor niggle, is the rushing of certain lines of dialogue by other cast members at odd moments, making those scenes a little hard to follow. Given that I’m well-disposed towards this rather daring project I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that they were trying to stay within the play’s lengthy one hour and fifty five minutes running time!
Given its dubious provenance Cardenio is often overlooked in favour of its more well-known contemporaries, so the Aporia Theatre Collective’s run could be your only opportunity to see this play for some considerable time. You can purchase tickets for just £12 (£10 concessions) at the Rose Theatre’s website.
The Rose Theatre was originally constructed in 1587, the first of its kind to be built south of the Thames in Southwark. Plays were performed there until around 1605 when its lease ran out, and it was subsequently pulled down. So how, you ask, could I have watched a play there just a few nights ago?
During an archaeological dig by the Museum of London in 1988 the extensive foundations of the theatre were discovered along with over 700 objects of historical significance, some of which you’ll find on display in the theatre’s small foyer today. Plays currently take place on a raised wooden platform which sits above one corner of the original ground plan – the foundations, which are currently covered over to aid in their preservation, are just a few inches below your feet.
The original dimensions of the theatre are picked out in red LED lighting which extends out into the void beyond the wooden platform – I found it rather spooky, a feeling that was probably helped along by hints from the staff that they have several ghosts who put in an appearance from time to time. Mostly supported by the work of volunteers, the theatre is currently awaiting the results of a large funding application to the Heritage Lottery – the intention is to rebuild the Rose Theatre in its original position but this time below street level, so as not to require the demolition of the office block which currently sits directly overhead. You can find out more about the endeavour to reinstate the theatre, called the Rose Revealed project, here online.