Director Justin Audibert has revived a 17th masterpiece that has lain forgotten since its last performance over 300 years ago. James Shirley’s tragic masterpiece The Cardinal is playing in London’s Southwark Playhouse until 27th May, and it was Libby Purves on Radio 4 who said about this revival that it reveals a work ‘Fresh as a violent daisy after 376 years’.
There are plenty of daggers and Kensington Gore (stage blood), a blood-curdling scream, and vigorous sword fighting in this revenge-fest described as a ‘gem’ in The Guardian’s review. But there is comedy too, and the oleaginous Cardinal and feisty Duchess, played superbly by Stephen Boxer and Natalie Simpson, are supported by strong comedic performances from Sophia Carr-Gomm, Rosie Wyatt and Timothy Speyer as the Duchess’s servants.
The danger in admiring Shakespeare as our finest bard means we can overlook much of the fine writing that his century produced, and as proof of this we have had to wait 376 years for this play to see the light of day. Congratulations to the Southwark Playhouse, Audibert and all the cast, for introducing Shirley to a modern audience. Who can fail to be moved by lines like this: “Your phrase has too much landscape and I cannot distinguish the figure perfect’ – spoken by the Duchess to the Cardinal, who will not cut to the chase, but hides his meaning in generalities. And in these days of surreal politics being played out on the stage of life, what could be more contemporary than the Cardinal’s words, “All great men know, the soul of life is fame.”