May 19, 2011

Cardenio (RSC) @ The Swan – Revisited

Follow-up to Cardenio (RSC) @ The Swan Theatre, Stratford–upon–Avon from The Bardathon

I’m just back from my second viewing of the RSC’s Cardenio, and it’s still great. This time, familiar with the new material and the reshaping of Double Falsehood, I had more leisure to enjoy the sparky relationship established between Oliver Rix's Cardenio and Lucy Briggs-Owen's Luscinda in the opening scenes; the formality of Simeon Moore's Pedro as he persuades Cardenio to inform on Fernando; the good-natured decision of the shepherds to escort Cardenio into town to be cured; and the role of Matti Houghton's Duenna in chaperoning Luscinda during all her meetings with Cardenio. The music, too, is utterly wonderful, and I didn’t do it justice in my last review. The Spanish-inflected band, with an amazing singer and fantastic flamenco guitar work, brought the house down during the final dance, and made all the difference in terms of atmosphere.

I also think Greg Doran has done stirling work in adding a great amount of new material that fits almost seamlessly with Theobald's text. Yes, there are a few inconsistencies (I particularly dislike Cardenio's resigned soliloquy after the wedding, which doesn't fit well with the character's subsequent madness), but by and large I would defy anyone without a prior knowledge of Double Falsehood to distinguish the new material. I'm writing at the moment about the difficulty of "splicing" together material in order to create an effective theatrical adaptation, and Doran's Cardenio is a masterclass in how to succeed.

I’m still deeply troubled, though, by the play’s treatment of Fernando’s seduction of Dorotea. I discussed this in my last review; but, in light of today’s outcry against Ken Clarke’s discussion of rape, and his implicit distinction between “serious” rape and (presumably) less serious forms of rape, I remain frustrated by the production’s fudging of this key issue. It's this that I'd like to focus on here.

In Double Falsehood, Henriquez (Fernando) woos Violante (Dorotea) at her window. She rebuffs him and leaves, and he piquantly asks why he is treated with contempt. In the next scene, he appears again in a distracted state. He reveals in soliloquy that he has forced himself on Violante. In a key speech, he promises to be hard on himself and asks if it was rape; and while he convinces himself that he didn’t, it is clear to the audience that rape is what it was. The text reads “True, she did not consent, as true she did resist, but in silence all.” We don’t need to know the exact details of how, when and where; the point is that he has raped her and that she did not consent, even in his own self-justification. Violante’s pursuit of Henriquez for the remainder of the play is an attempt to make the best of the situation by making good on his promise to marry her (a promise which he gave during the rape, with the implication that it offered him some comfort). While this is obviously an early modern solution to a social problem, it poses interesting possibilities for a modern production – as indeed it did for MokitaGrit – in exploring the problematic relationship between love and abuse.

In Doran’s production, the heaviest section of new writing comes in between these two scenes. First, we see Alex Hassell's Fernando at court with Cardenio, showing that he did not instantly act on his impulse to pursue her into her room. The heat is taken off his lust. Then, Doran provides a lengthy seduction scene. Early in this scene, Fernando attempts to force himself on Pippa Nixon's Dorotea. She resists, and he desists.

However, she then throws him a lifeline, by telling him that she would be happy to yield her virginity to the man who promised to marry her. He leaps on this, offering her marriage and promising to be hers forever. She consents – slowly, but decisively – to this, and the scene closes on the two of them sharing a mutual kiss, before fireworks explode and a fiesta with phallic manikins takes over the stage. The only more threatening note is as Fernando points out that, if they don’t do the act, he will shame her by making clear his departure from her flat, pressuring her into consenting.

The pressure applied on Dorotea in this scene is enough to still demonstrate Fernando’s basic caddishness, and I would argue it’s still enough to qualify as rape. However, the emphasis on her consent is too strong. In the self-justification scene that follows, there is an important textual change, as Fernando says “True, she DID consent; as true, she did resist.” While this could still be explained away as his own self-delusion, this is the soliloquy which dictates how an audience is expected to respond to the act, and it corroborates what we have already seen – that Dorotea willingly had sex with Fernando, albeit under conditions that Fernando is showing us he has no intention of keeping. What is crucial here is that Fernando is convincing in his assertion that it was not rape, strongly emphasised by the actor in a voice designed to break apart from the character’s comic weakness and determine a truth. For this production, the act is not rape. Fernando’s crime is reduced to that of faithlessness, even treachery, but he is spared the tarnish of a rapist.

The aim is to make Cardenio a family-friendly production. Rape is difficult to discuss with nuance on the stage, and even more difficult to govern audience response to without depicting shocking scenes of violence. By reducing the problem to one of, essentially, fidelity – as stressed in Dorotea’s (new) closing speech where she stresses that, according to their contract, they are already married – Doran allows for a comic resolution, as Dorotea appeals to Fernando’s heart and he grows penitent, the two embracing in love.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. However, what is shown and spoken of in this production – even with the textual changes – is too serious for so light a treatment. His abuse of trust in order to satiate his own lust regardless of her own wishes is shocking, and needs to be interrogated on the modern stage, not glossed over and relegated to what, given today’s news stories, ends up coming across as a “less serious” form of rape.

Now, I'm aware that, because of my research, I'm unusually attuned to the textual changes and the interpretive decisions that have gone into this production as compared with Double Falsehood, and I wouldn't expect others to necessarily pick up on the things I'm talking about. I'm not voicing this as an all-encompassing condemnation of the production, nor suggesting that it somehow (intentionally or not) legitimises a form of rape. But in tonight's performance, Dorotea’s agency in the sexual act was visible enough to allow a substantial portion of the audience to laugh in relief as the rapist absolved himself of his own crime. And however much I want to apologise for the production, that sickened me.


- 5 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

  1. Duncan

    Fernando’s sexual incontinence has been made the comic heart of the production. His relations with Luscinda and Dorotea are the mainspring of its action. Cardenio, who no longer intervenes at Luscinda’s forced wedding, is reduced to the sidelines with his problems being resolved partly by his brother and partly by Dorotea’s last-minute intervention to rescue Luscinda from Fernando’s clutches.

    Doran said in the introduction to the playtext that he would have to restore Cardenio’s (i.e. the play’s) cojones: but, in terms of the character at least, he seems to have snipped them completely off. Right from the word go we see Fernando as the daring protagonist (he’s first on stage) with a disarming comic persona, whereas Cardenio’s first appearance is as an inadequate suitor creeping round Luscinda with all the characters he interacts with – Luscinda, Don Bernando and the Duenna – showing him to be timid and inadequate.

    The night I saw this (and I’m going back later for a second look too) Fernando’s question “Was it rape then?” prompted one woman in the audience to laugh. Hassell paused, came forward to address her, and dropped his one word answer ‘No’ as a riposte.

    19 May 2011, 09:38

  2. Duncan – completely agree on the character of Cardenio. I quite like this for the most part, but he’s still disappointingly passive even in the final scene, responding only to Fernando trying to physically beat him up.

    That’s a great anecdote about the night you saw it. That scene is so key to interpretation of Fernando’s actions, and so dependent on the actor-audience dynamic, that I imagine it changes nightly. Hassell’s a strong performer, so I’m guessing he handles it well. In the right hands, Doran’s treatment of the rape could be incisive, nuanced and deeply problematising; but it’s so hard to do this in a theatre where audiences are coming in with different levels of tolerance, attention and assumptions; and I feel the production tends too easily towards forgiveness and reconciliation. I should have added – this is far more in line with the treatment in Don Quixote, where the relationship between Fernando and Dorotea is (from memory) even more consensual, but I think mapping this dynamic onto the rape narrative of Double Falsehood creates something which isn’t quite either.

    19 May 2011, 09:49

  3. Duncan

    It’s interesting to compare the staging of the rape in Mokitagrit’s enhanced Double Falsehood with the way the same interpolation is handled in this Cardenio. It creates two completely different plays.

    19 May 2011, 10:00

  4. Ryan Service

    Peter, I think you’re right about the sickening side of Fernando’s self-justification- it all felt very uncomfortable as an audience member. What I admire about Doran’s production, though, is that he rarely permits private moments on his stage. There is always an on-looker or a passerby (similar to the way Ross, the Porter and the three musicians in Boyd’s Macbeth always keep things public). Any expectancy of intimacy in this Cardenio is thrust into chaos as street scenes and religious festivals erupt into colour, blare and blaze. The rape scene in question spills over into a street carnival and this juxtaposition, of eruption and explosion, doesn’t sit easy with me.
    Those cloister gates, however, that cast a shadow upon the theatre’s back wall throughout the production remind us of what is at stake- namely, female virtue.

    15 Jun 2011, 14:27

  5. Indeed, it’s up there with trains driving into tunnels in North by Northwest in the subtlety stakes, eh? Those are some great insights Ryan, thank you. And you’re right about the cloister gates, particularly with the Duenna – the guardian of Luscinda’s virtue – constantly on watch behind them.

    15 Jun 2011, 16:13


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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.


The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.


Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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