Re-imagining Cardenio

Middle Temple Hall

March 30, 2011
King Edwards boys performing at Middle Temple Hall

King Edwards boys performing at Middle Temple Hall

Sunday evening, and I find my way into London, to Middle Temple Hall for a performance of John Marston's Antonio's Revenge by the boys of King Edward School (KES) in Stratford-upon-Avon.

To enter Middle Temple Hall is to step back in time.

Middle Temple is one of the ancient Inns of Court, and its Great Hall, built while Shakespeare was still a boy, survived the Great Fire of London and the Blitz. Sir Walter Raleigh was admitted here in 1574. John Dowland played in the minstrels' gallery above the magnificent carved oak screen at the eastern end, and one of the tables is said to have been made from the hatch cover of Francis Drake's ship, The Golden Hind after her circumnavigation of the globe. Perhaps most potent of all, Twelfth Night was performed here at 1602.

The genius behind tonight's event is the KES Assistant Headmaster, Perry Mills. I hope the boys know how lucky they are to have such a dedicated enthusiast.

I have seen a number of Elizabethan and Jacobean plays performed by Perry's boys over the last few years, from Middleton's A Mad World My Masters and A Chaste Maid in Cheapside, to extracts from Jonson's Poetaster, and even Lyly's Mother Bombie. As with their predecessors, the boys of St Paul's, in Shakespeare's day, the boys play all the parts male and female. Here they all wear their school uniform under blue boiler suits, adding skirts over the top for the female characters, and wigs.

There is perhaps a rather studied attempt to ignore any ambiguous sexual charge that boys playing girls might ignite. At my school, where all of sixteen years of age, I gave my definitive Lady Macbeth, we tended to go the whole hog. There was padded bra kept in a shoe box in the costume wardrobe under the stage, known as the Brunhilda for its ample proportions. It was an object of fascination to the boys.

In the Prologue to Antonio's Revenge, Marston lowers the very temperature itself, for his 'sullen tragic scene':

The rawish damp of clumsy winter ramps
The fluent summers vein: and drizzling sleet
Chilleth the wan bleak cheek of the numbed earth,
Whilst snarling gusts nibble the juiceless leaves
From the naked shuddering branch...

The KES boys do a great job, with lashings of relish (and admirable diction) they throw themselves into the action, having a particularly good time ripping out the evil Duke Piero's tongue. In the lofty hall of Middle Temple under its magnificent double hammer beam roof, Marston's anarchic gore-fest seems to suit the crepuscular gloom.

It's not hard to see how the novelty of these boy companies found huge popularity in the early 1600's. Rosencrantz tells Hamlet of 'an eyrie of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of question and are most tyrannically clapp'd for't'. This 'late innovation' caused some concern among the profession, 'berattled' the common stages, and caused much 'throwing about of brains'. Ben Jonson is said to have liked writing for them because he knew they would not argue back and change his script, or improvise around it.

In the rehearsal room for Cardenio, we are still working on the script.

Our challenge this week is to crack the play's denouement. Lewis Theobald's Double Falshood wraps everything up rather too neatly. He has so many loose ends to tie up, so many revelations to juggle - far more than Cervantes, who only has the quartet of lovers to manage. Double Falshood introduces three different fathers into the action (Fletcher's influence, I suspect). Shakespeare's late plays manage these final scenes brilliantly, perhaps most astonishingly in Cymbeline.

George Bernard Shaw had such a problem with the denouement of this play, he unapologetically 're-finished' it. But he misses the point. In a good production managed well, the revelation piled upon revelation has a joyous effect. More characters have asides in that play than in any other of Shakespeare's canon. These asides are crucial to how the final scene works, because they demand that you the audience see the action from each character's perspective. So when the final impossible outcome is achieved you are waiting eagerly for each of your new confidantes to tell their side of the story.

It must be the same with Cardenio. We have to have made sufficient investment in each character to allow the audience to await the unravelling with eager anticipation. We have to make the audience experience, however unlikely the circumstances, a balance between the fantastic and the plausible - what Coleridge called 'the willing suspension of disbelief'. And we must do that by infusing these 'shadows of imagination' with genuine life-blood.

So there's our task.

by Greg Doran  |  1 comment

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Apr 30, 8:34pm

The investment in each character has certainly paid off.This must be one of the strongest casts we have seen at RSC for a while.We enjoyed the production immensely& it was so layered - I thik we must see it again.
Congratulations to all concerned and thanks!And for the interesting blogs.

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