Re-imagining Cardenio

Spoiled for an actor

January 13, 2011

Imagine the scene. It is Tuesday July 2nd 1661. An indoor tennis court in Lincoln's Inn Fields has been converted into a theatre, and Sir William Davenant's 'opera' The Siege of Rhodes (Part Two) is being staged. It has just opened. Young Thomas Betterton is playing the great Ottoman Sultan, Suleyman the Magnificent, his wife appears as the heroine Ianthe. Everyone is here. Samuel Pepys has ridden over in his coach from his singing lesson, and records the scene. There is tremendous excitement because the King himself, recently returned from exile in France, restored to the throne and crowned Charles II, is about to arrive. It is the first time he has ever attended a public playhouse.

While the audience is waiting a board breaks in the ceiling over their heads: 'We had a great deal of dust fell into the ladies' necks and the men's hair, which made good sport'. Amidst this laughter the royal party arrives. Pepys continues: 'The King being come, the scene opened; which indeed is very fine and magnificent'. This is indeed a great novelty for the theatre has scenery. A painted backdrop reveals the whole harbour of the Mediterranean Island of Rhodes. Before theatres had only had hangings. This is something splendid.

The action proceeds and the character of the eunuch Haly appears on stage. The music finishes, and he stands there ready to speak. His mouth opens but nothing comes out. He can see the King, and the Duke of York, and the whole assembly of London's finest and best. The lamps flicker and the house goes silent expecting him to begin. His mouth dries, his brain swims and panic seizes his chest and throat. The full house puts him into a sweat, a tremendous agony of nerves. The King, the Duke of York, all the nobility. The august presence simply drives his lines from his head, and he can do nothing but gape. Davenant in the wings must have been clenching his fists in fury. And then the hissing starts.

Every actor can relate to the heart-stopping terror of forgetting lines. I recall playing Octavius Caesar in Terry Hands' production of Julius Caesar, when I first joined the RSC as an actor. One midweek matinee, in the parley before the battle of Philippi, I completely dried. Roger Allam, playing Brutus, (and down stage of me at the time), gave me a wan smile of such abject pity that I think I determined there and then that acting was perhaps not for me after all.

John Downes, the poor soul playing the Eunuch on this occasion, writing nearly fifty years later said of his nightmare that it 'spoil'd me for an actor.' He went into stage management. I concentrated on directing.

In fact John Downes became the prompter and book-keeper of the company. And later in his retirement he wrote Roscius Anglicanus, his pithy account of the theatre of his day. Our knowledge of much of late seventeenth century British theatre is largely due to his book. It was John Downes' job to look after the scripts, to write out all the parts for the actors, to call and attend morning rehearsals and afternoon performances, and indeed to prompt the actors, a responsibility which I suspect he took rather seriously in the light of his own near catastrophe.

And it was John Downes, so it would seem, who wrote out a copy of a manuscript of an old play called The History of Cardenio...

A strange little footnote:
In the royal party, witnessing poor John Downes' humiliation that afternoon at the Lincoln's Inn Theatre was the King's aunt, the Queen of Bohemia, the Winter Queen herself. Now sixty five, Elizabeth Stuart had been the young princess at Whitehall, in that Christmas season of 1612 when Cardenio was first performed. Her marriage to Frederick Elector Palatine had made her briefly the Queen of Bohemia, until his death nearly thirty years ago. She had come to London to visit her nephew, the new King, and she would die here the following February.

by Greg Doran  |  No comments yet


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