Greg Doran on his “Cardenio” project with the RSC

February 2011

[Revived from print version of magazine on grounds of historical interest]

Greg Doran of the RSC has re-imagined the lost Shakespeare and Fletcher play Cardenio. Jeremy Malies visited Doran at the RSC’s London premises during rehearsals.  


Alex Hassell and Lucy Briggs-Owen (foreground) in Cardenio.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.


Doran’s Hamlet starring David Tennant at the RSC’s Courtyard Theatre in 2008 was hailed by many critics as the finest version of their generation. The production, set in an Elsinore dominated by CCTV surveillance, created a similar stir when it transferred to London despite Tennant missing much of the run after injuring his back. Dr Who fans who had paid fortunes to touts or camped outside the Novello Theatre box office were partially appeased when Doran and John Wyver shot a film version at a former seminary in Mill Hill which was broadcast by the BBC. 

Doran is now in less populist and more academic territory as he works through a thicket of source material to arrive at – barring a significant discovery – the most authentic version we are likely to have of Cardenio, Shakespeare and Fletcher’s treatment of an episode in Don Quixote.  

The nearest thing to a surviving text of the play is the 1727 work Double Falsehood by the editor and classicist Lewis Theobald who claimed that he had amalgamated three corrupt manuscripts of Cardenio. The production is by the independent company MokitaGrit and is an unpretentious, honest project which takes Theobald’s text at face value and simply invites audiences to speculate on authorship. It has played to packed houses and fuelled interest in the RSC’s Cardenio.   


The nearest thing to a surviving text of the play is the 1727 work Double Falsehood” by the editor and classicist Lewis Theobald who claimed that he had amalgamated three corrupt manuscripts of “Cardenio”. What do we know for sure and what can we surmise about the pedigree of Lewis Theobald’s “Double Falsehood”?  

“As a young man in the 1720s Theobald was presented with what he thought was a Shakespeare play. Bear in mind that this was an era when Shakespeare was by no means sacrosanct. Theobald claimed to have three versions including one supplied by John Downes, the famous prompter in the Duke’s Company run by Thomas Betterton, whose own acting career had ended when he forgot his lines and was hissed off stage. Downes may have taken the manuscript of Cardenio by Shakespeare and Fletcher and – just as Betterton’s company had already adapted Shakespeare and Fletcher’s Two Noble Kinsmen and Henry VIII – modified the piece in order that Betterton could play the lead. So Theobald may have got hold of what was already an adaptation of Shakespeare and Fletcher and adapted it again for use at Drury Lane.  

You are going to have to take out things you consider to be spurious but more importantly you must fill gaps. In your blog about “Cardenio” on the RSC website you talk about a rehearsed reading of “Double Falsehood” during which you became convinced that two crucial scenes were missing. 

“While we were doing Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed at the Swan, I read Double Falsehood. This was long before the Arden edition and I had to dig the text out of a library. I did a rehearsed reading with the company who were performing The Tamer Tamed and it became obvious that two crucial episodes were missing, scenes that in my gut I knew Shakespeare and Fletcher would have staged. One is a seduction that may or may not end in a rape and the other is an abduction from a convent. There are lots of scenes in Jacobean drama where coffins are brought on and people jump out of them. Fletcher would have loved the prospect of a coffin being taken into a convent and would have insisted on including that scene. At this point I thought: ‘Those scenes don’t exist so in my judgement Double Falsehood is not performable for the RSC.’ But … there was always Cervantes and the Spanish angle …”  


Oliver Rix and Lucy Briggs-Owen in Cardenio.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.


The RSC has a history of collaboration with the theatre community in Spain and these links have been crucial in the development of “Cardenio”. Tell us about your time in Spain, both researching this piece and working on earlier projects that have led up to it. 

 “The RSC has done a number of one-off productions in Spain and toured there with the “Spanish Golden Age” season. I myself took The Canterbury Tales and a production of Coriolanus to Madrid. Knowing that Shakespeare’s original play Cardenio was based on Cervantes, I wanted to learn from Spanish theatre practitioners and academics what they thought of the story. How’s this for name-dropping! The RSC was awarded an arts medal by the King of Spain and I was asked to collect it. In conversation with King Juan Carlos, I said: ‘Do you know that Cervantes wrote a story that Shakespeare then developed and we’ve got some of it?’ He simply said: ‘¡Fantastico!’  

“I began working with the Spanish dramaturge Antonio Álamo who runs the Lope de Vega theatre in Seville and is a Cervantes nut in the way that I am probably a Shakespeare nut. He was fascinating when he talked about what the story meant in Spain. The more I listened to him the more I realised how Lewis Theobald’s adaptation had emasculated the play by cutting out the rape scene and the abduction scene. I thought that we needed to get more of the Cervantes back into this. But I still had the problem of whether or not to write these scenes. So I got hold of the first English translation of Don Quixote by Thomas Shelton which appeared in 1612.

It must have been what Fletcher and Shakespeare used. The more I read it, the more I realised that Double Falsehood did indeed contain Shakespeare and Fletcher because phrases from the Shelton just sprang about, and I thought: ‘This is clearly not just the source but Theobald has got the Shelton open while he’s writing.’ What was also exciting – and it gave me the confidence to move things on – was that the scenes missing from Double Falsehood were written largely in dialogue in the Cervantes. So I decided it would not be a huge step to reconstruct these from the Cervantes. I also came across the first attempt to dramatize the story of Don Quixote in Spain by Guillén de Castro. With dates of 1569-1631, he was more or less a contemporary of Shakespeare. He deals with Don Quixote but his focus is the character of Cardenio. I then realised that Molière’s company had an adaptation of Don Quixote in which the same thing happens again; the Cardenio and Dorotea story is treated in full.”  


Oliver Rix in Cardenio.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.


How have the various texts come together? 

“I had to avoid anything akin to a Hollywood blockbuster with more screenwriting credits than could be supported. I asked Antonio Álamo to give me a sense of the importance of honour in the story and to alert me to those elements that might have become thinned out so that we could fortify the play. I believe that what Double Falsehood indicates more than anything is how Shakespeare and Fletcher went about turning an episode from Cervantes’s novel into a play.  

“The novel tells the story in flashback, starting with a mad Cardenio in the mountains narrating his story to Don Quixote. That jigsaw structure is fascinating but it’s not a method that anybody would have used in seventeenth-century drama. They would have refashioned it and made the story linear. The task was to supply the missing beats, and what I didn’t want to do was end up with a pastiche Jacobean piece. I think it’s probable that John Fletcher could read Spanish. I looked through his plays and discovered that at least six of them are based on stories by Cervantes, some using narratives within Don Quixote and others based on the moral and instructive tales. Character traits and story elements leapt out at me from these.  

“We then tried out the text we had at another workshop while the RSC was on a residency project at the University of Michigan. We were collaborating with a Hispanic American theatre company, Lab, who of course included Spanish speakers. They read the working version, and characters who in English had seemed a little flat were transformed by Spanish flair and Latin volatility. When we had finished the workshop, I told them the back-story of how this had come together, and they said they had no idea that it was anything other than a single-authorship play.” 

That must have made you realize that the whole undertaking had acquired integrity. 

“Of course. It made me think: ‘This isn’t a mongrel anymore.’ When we decided that it would be Cardenio that would reopen the Swan at Stratford I thought: ‘Well there’s still a difficulty. The problem that the Arden edition of Double Falsehood has encountered is that some people have seen in it an implication that this is the missing Shakespeare play. Well I’m not claiming that what I’m doing is the lost Shakespeare play but rather that I have re-imagined what we have lost.’  

“Once we began to get it into production, I wanted to shift the focus away from anything that even smacked of an academic exercise: ‘Did Shakespeare write this bit or that bit?’ It’s too thin an argument for putting on a play. Far better to say: ‘Here’s a story by Cervantes in which Shakespeare and Fletcher had an interest which seems to be present in Double Falsehood and has Shakespearian DNA in it.’ Then the task is to make the play work in the twenty-first century. The first time we read it through there were moments when the poetry just rose; there was a quantum leap in the quality of the verse. We thought: ‘There’s Shakespeare floating in that line or there’s something Fletcherian about that phrase.’”  


Pippa Nixon and Alex Hassell in Cardenio.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.


Can you talk about the recent restructuring at Stratford and position “Cardenio” within these developments? You talk in your RSC blog about working on the model for the set with designer Niki Turner but you’re getting beyond that phase now. How are the two of you going to visualise the piece at the new Swan?” 

“Everybody who works at the Swan realises that you don’t really need to impose much of a set. There’s a lovely essay dating from 1630 [generally credited to John Webster] entitled ‘An Excellent Actor’ which describes an actor as being in the centre of a circle of ears. That’s exactly what the Swan is; it’s the actor and the word and the space but, crucially, it requires the audience to complete the negotiation with the performer. 

“What you need at the Swan in terms of design is something that doesn’t fight the very strong presence of the mellowed wood. During our trip to Spain, which included time in Toledo, Niki and I found something that was very Spanish and relevant to the story of Luscinda and Cardenio. The narrative mentions an iron gate. In those days, and right up until the 1930s, Spanish girls would be serenaded by their boyfriends through an iron grille. The grille becomes metaphorical as a representation of separation, just like the balcony in Romeo and Juliet. We enlarged that grille over the set as a kind of rood screen with the inspiration coming from Toledo cathedral and its huge grille.”   

We’re speaking during a break between rehearsal sessions. Tell me about the notable things that are happening at the moment. 

“What’s interesting in the process right now is the collaboration that is going on. The theme of collaboration defines this whole project, whether it’s Shakespeare collaborating with John Fletcher or Lewis Theobald collaborating with the actors at Drury Lane or me collaborating with people from the academic world. The actors are immersing themselves in their characters. They’re coming back and saying: ‘There’s a missing beat here. Why does my character not do this? What does he/she mean by this?’ That allows us to test things and maybe decide that there is indeed something missing – be it a line or a physical gesture. I have to return to the Shelton translation of Cervantes and find something. The actors have been reading the translation too. The authority of the story has to go back to Cervantes but this needs to work in the twenty-first century, so the process is very much alive. It’s archaeological up to a point but then it becomes a question of how best to tell the story of Cardenio in our own time.  Occasionally you have to put the literary archaeology away. ” 

Betrayal of friendship is central to the plot of “The Two Noble Kinsmen” on which Shakespeare and Fletcher also collaborated. And it’s the fulcrum here. Is that the main theme we should extract from the piece in the twenty-first century? Where are the modern parallels? 

“Betrayal is a powerful theme in both Cervantes and Shakespeare, as is the theme of two brothers not liking each other. What Fernando does by way of betrayal in Cardenio is really important. It’s not just his dishonourable behaviour towards Dorotea but his appetite for grabbing suddenly from his best friend, exactly as Proteus does in The Two Gentlemen of Verona. You could take the villainous character and play him as a moustache-twirling blackguard but he’s not that. As we’ve been going through the story we’ve discovered that he’s a really accurate portrayal of a narcissist. Fernando is a detailed picture of somebody with a sex addiction. It doesn’t matter if the next target is the lover of his best friend; he always goes for danger. We’ve contacted a psychotherapist so we can explore their behaviour in a rational way.” 

Can you talk about individual cast members? The female leads are being played by actresses who already have an impressive body of work behind them but are still in an early phase of their careers. And you’ve cast a complete unknown in the title role.  

“As Luscinda, Lucy Briggs-Owen is cleverly avoiding any judgement of her character but playfully toying with her neuroses and making her a believable, lovable figure. Pippa Nixon, who is playing Dorotea, has a fantastic ability to go right to the heart of the character. And Alex Hassell, who played Cassio for us recently in Kathryn Hunter’s production of Othello, is turning Fernando into a part that lots of actors are going to want to play when they see him. He’s Iago and Richard III wrapped into one – wicked, troubled, damaged, charismatic. And yes, I’ve cast an unknown as Cardenio; it’s his first job. Ollie Rix, who is out of LAMDA, is going to be very special. He had been working on a building site in Southampton and came in for a first audition and was asked back.”  

“So what did Ollie do as his audition piece and what did you see in him?” 

“Ollie did a speech by York from Henry VI which I thought was an intelligent choice. You don’t often get actors who have really looked into the complete works like that. It’s the speech where Queen Margaret has just put the crown on his head, and he went immediately to the heart of it. He got so involved, without any showiness or pretension, that a tear trickled down his face and I thought: ‘That is hard! It’s tough to inhabit a character in that manner during an audition in a tiny office in Earlham Street.’ Ollie read the play and said: ‘I must be Cardenio. I know exactly who that character is.’” 

The same actors are doing Massinger’s “The City Madam”. Has there been any cross-fertilisation as the plays are rehearsed? 

“I asked Dominic Hill to direct The City Madam because I hold a torch for the idea of doing work from the Caroline era in the Swan. It was also chosen because of the resonance with The Merchant of Venice and those two plays will open opposite each other in May. Both are about trade and mercantile issues. So The City Madam has more scope for cross-fertilisation with what is going on in the main house. You could give The City Madam an alternative title such as “The Merchant of London”.  

Is there an overall coherence to the anniversary RSC season? Should we be looking for themes running through the plays? Is that something the RSC strives for?  

“Sometimes a theme can be more to do with the right type of variety though occasionally we will approach it as cohesion of subject, such as when Michael Boyd did the history plays. In the following season when I directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Love’s Labour’s Lost and Hamlet, the theme of plays within plays emerged. But we hadn’t put those choices together on that basis – it just happened. Here to some extent we are celebrating our birthday with a discovery piece, a really great Jacobean/Caroline play in the shape of The City Madam that hasn’t been done by us before.”