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The Cardinal review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘gratifyingly dark farce’

Stephen Boxer in The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Stephen Boxer in The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Like most 17th century revenge tragedies, James Shirley’s The Cardinal is a gratifyingly dark farce: masques, wars, poisonings, and illicit love abound as the titular Cardinal schemes to sure up his power in the unhappy state of Navarre.

With no less than four revenges whirring along at once, director Justin Audibert and his cast deliver a clear, full-bodied piece of storytelling. The performers circle around each other, caught in the momentum of their vengeance.

The waspishly acerbic writing is embraced with relish by the cast, especially Stephen Boxer as the machinating Cardinal, unctuous voice full of port wine and piety.

Natalie Simpson as the Duchess, his equally calculating foil, exudes crackling determination but elsewhere feels underpowered in a role that requires her to be constantly wheeling from one extreme to another.

Anna Reid’s design is a clever, if restrained, combination of cathedral nave and 17th century indoor theatre: a long empty space of grey stone slabs, accentuated by Max Pappenheim’s sound design, a constant reverberation of voices like echoes in a church.

There are times, however, when this production feels a little too restrained considering its source material; the smell of incense upon entering the space promises much greater excess, and occasionally the production seems to be itching to burst into something bigger and louder.

It skims deftly along surface of the text without ever quite mining it for either deeper resonances or thrills – the result is enjoyably cartoonish, a spaghetti western in farthingale skirts.

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Full-bodied revival of a rarely staged 17th century revenge play