Review: Double Falsehood, Union Theatre

“I invite thee, consuming desolation, to this temple”

Well it is not so much desolation that can be consumed at the Union Theatre in Southwark but rather the first professional production of the play Double Falsehood since 1792. It is most notable for being a play that was controversially included in the Arden Complete Works of Shakespeare last year despite its provenance being hotly debated. As it is understood in this Clown’s mind, Double Falsehood is a 1727 adaptation by Lewis Theobald reportedly based on a 1613 play called Cardenio by Shakespeare and John Fletcher (who also collaborated on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsmen). There’s reams of debate and scholarly concerns about this but ultimately, it should not be allowed to detract from what is an interesting production here.

Set in Andalucía around the court of Duke Angelo, whose youngest son Henrique causes a whole world of trouble when he rapes and abandons servant girl Violante and then decides to pursue and marry Leonora who just happens to be betrothed to his friend Julio. The fall-out from these events sees everyone scattered, themselves and their families left behind distraught, throughout the local countryside and it is left up to the noble older son and heir of Angelo, Roderick, to round everyone up and reunite lovers, parents and children and ensure that justice is served in the Spanish hills.

Willmott’s production takes a pared down approach to ensure that proceedings are impressively pacey. Javier De Frutos’ design likewise is spare but successful: costumes suggest the laid-back elegance of the 1950s and the monks’ habits used in the more pastoral second half added to a highly atmospheric setting with chanting and bell ringing going on all around the audience (the finger-licking shepherd was a step too far for me, but I suspect that it says more about me, rape and slapping is ok but finger-licking right in front of me? No!) Jason Meininger’s lighting worked well with little lanterns being my favourite touch and the combined effect was to really utilise the idiosyncracies of this converted railway arch venue.

Standout performances for me were Gabriel Vick’s wronged and passionate Julio and Emily Plumtree’s Leonora who was also beautifully spoken with a natural ease in the intimate space of the Union. They have a palpable chemistry which convinced from the outset which made their respective descents into madness and nunhood all the more powerful. Jessie Lilley coped admirably with the difficult part of Violante with her relentless pursuit of Adam Redmore’s spoilt playboy, who could probably done with one or two less manic laughs, but did well at suggesting the psychological torment wrought upon her. Sam Hoare brought a nice maturity to the older son who and his quietly commanding gravitas was nicely reflected in his stage father, Richard Franklin, as Duke Angelo.

As for the Shakespeare connection, well there are certainly moments in the text where one thinks ooh this could be him and the dramatic conventions used, like cross-dressing and people wandering around and finding redemption in the wilderness, also puts one in mind of the Bard. But it does feel like something different at the same time, I loved the cliffhanger into the interval and missed the comic touches which would have made the play into a bona fide tragicomedy and the sheer paciness means that less opportunity for real insight into a number of the characters.

More importantly though, I think your experience of the evening will depend on your expectations going into this show. The production team have rightly played up the links to Shakespeare as Methuen’s inclusion has stirred up the debate, indeed the RSC are mounting their own production of Cardenio this year, trying to reconstruct the original story from a number of sources including this play, and it has brought much attention to one of the most exciting fringe theatres in London in the Union and to a production company Mokitagrit (who were responsible for my number one musical of 2010, Once Upon A Time at the Adelphi) who are both fizzing with ambition. But if you go into Double Falsehood expecting straight-up Shakespeare then you’re simply setting yourself up for disappointment. By all means, have fun trying to work out what, if any, hand he had in this, but don’t let that blind you to the strong efforts of everyone involved in this well-mounted, engaging production.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Programme cost: free sheet available with a brilliant Director’s note which is well worth a read
Booking until 12th February

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