The addition of Double Falsehood to the Arden Shakespeare series, arguably the most well-respected and scholarly of the major Shakespeare editions, caused a well-documented stir when it was published in May, 2010. By extending the Arden name and full-works editorial treatment, Arden was legitimizing a play many scholars (and lay readers) felt to be only tenuously connected to Shakespeare, if not an outright forgery. The merits of the edition and its inclusion in the Arden Shakespeare series aside, no professional company had yet tackled the play as published (though, for instance, the RSC will be opening its new Stratford season with Cardenio, a re-imagining of what the “original” play might have been like).
Enter director Phil Willmott and MokitaGrit productions, asking: could this strange piece, claiming to be a collaboration by William Shakespeare and John Fletcher, with adaptations for the early eighteenth-century stage by Lewis Theobold, make for cogent, engaging drama? Or, as Willmott writes in a well-grounded program note, “I soon wanted to wrestle it [Double Falsehood] away from the academics and stand it on its feet so that theatre goers and makers could debate its merits too, but as a living breathing piece of theatre rather than a scholarly text.” Plays, in other words, are meant to be performed, and are to be judged just as much (if not more) on their theatrical qualities as their linguistic or provenancial ones. Offering an eager audience the opportunity to make their own judgments, the staging of Double Falsehood, directed by Willmott at the Union Theatre, is an interesting and coherent rendering of the play. However, though the production itself is well-acted and solidly directed, the play material comes across as heavily adapted and slightly unsatisfying.
But first, as the plot is less familiar to readers (it derives from incidents recounted in Don Quixote), a brief summary is in order. Julio (Gabriel Vick) is in love with Leonora (Emily Plumtree), who is playing hard-to-get. Her mother (Su Douglas) is lukewarm to the match, despite Julio’s father, Camillo (Stephen Boswell) and his protestations. When Julio is called away to the court of Duke Angelo (Richard Franklin), he leaves Leonora in care of his friend and younger son to the Duke, Henrique (Adam Redmore). Henrique, wooing and then raping a young woman, Violante (Jessie Lilley), then pursues Leonora for his own, taking advantage of Julio’s absence. Henrique, with Leonora’s mother’s help, attempts to force Leonora to marry him, but she flees to a convent. Julio, hearing the news, runs mad into the hills where he meets the ravished Violante, mourning her fate. Along comes the Duke’s eldest son, Roderick (Sam Hoare), who learns of his younger brother’s misdeeds. In the final scene, Roderick arranges a reunion among all the offended parties, uniting Julio and Leonora, and promoting the (uncomfortable) marriage of Henrique and Violante.
Though the Union Theatre production is well done and (mostly) faithful to the original material, what is most immediately apparent is that this play has been cut and adapted. (Hammond in his introductory notes to the Arden edition argues for a two-stage adaptation process, the original 1613 text first cut during the Restoration and then by Theobold in the 1720s.) The action plays on one dramatic level, as only vestiges of a comic subplot remain. The company manages to present the play in a swift two hours, and the production possesses a fluid, direct feel. Chairs are scattered around the rear of the stage, where characters sit to watch the action unfolding. As characters are referred to in dialogue, they stroll onto the stage. Scene changes are as simple as one character walking on stage while another walks off. In the text, Violante’s rape is only referred to, but Willmott chooses to show it, interweaving the action with several of Henrique’s speeches.
As for the setting: “I’ve chosen a vaguely 1950s Spanish look to costume the Andalusian setting, called for as I didn’t want the distancing effect of period dress, nor the baggage of contemporary clothing that would make you wonder why everyone doesn’t sort out the misunderstandings via iPhone.” (Let directors take note of the iPhone comment.) Javier De Frutos’s design aids the project with some two or three dozen lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Music and sound effects, sometimes too loud for the small Union, set scenes—a farmyard, wind-swept rocks, a monastery.
Some stand-out acting adds to the production. Vick, as Julio, is an open and uncluttered actor, conveying Julio’s sense of betrayal and deep feeling for Leonora. Lilley makes her professional stage debut as Violante, and the honesty and woundedness in her portrayal is compelling to watch—here’s hoping for a long and distinguished career. Also noteworthy is Plumtree’s Leonora, who at first is sassy and flirtatious but later reveals an inner strength.
In a shrewd move, Whillmott alters the part of Leonora’s father Don Bernardo, to that of her mother, played with poise and intensity by Douglas. The re-gendering works as it allows 1) for the addition of another female actor in what is otherwise a male-dominated play 2) for speeches such as “I remember two of us courted her at the same time. She lov’d neither of us, but she chose me purely to spite that surly old blockhead my father-in-law” to be re-pronoun-ed so as to enjoy a much more intimate delivery (“I remember two of them courted me at the same time...”) and 3) for the subtle suggestion that the mother is sexually interested in the flattering Henrique. Given the gender alteration and the subsequent textual changes that accompany it, the audience is thus witnessing Double Falsehood, by William Shakespeare (?) and John Fletcher, adapted by Lewis Theobold, adapted by Phil Willmott.
Though well acted and thoughtfully directed, Double Falsehood feels thin—like an underbrewed cup of tea. Character motivations are not fleshed out, and the plot action carries the play. There are a few contemplative moments, such as when Camillo, Leonora’s mother, and the Duke—all parents mourning the disappearance of their children—sit together, discussing youth, age, and parenthood, but these are rare. Double Falsehood, while offering an intelligent look at the commodification of male-female relationships, ultimately suffers from its own unfortunate amputations at the hands of earlier adapters.