06/09/2011 10:46 BST | Updated 01/11/2011 05:12 GMT

Review of the RSC's Cardenio: Shakespeare Lost and Found, or Fletcher Restored?

The RSC's Cardenio, currently playing at the The Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon, is a brilliant and audacious attempt to reimagine a lost Shakespearean play. It is better, and more psychologically interesting, than the work on which it is based (Lewis Theobald's Double Falsehood, [1727]), and it is more like its closest relative: Shakespeare and Fletcher'sThe Two Noble Kinsmen(1613). But why is this so, and in what way is Cardenio "Shakespeare's 'Lost Play' Reimagined", as it is advertised? Is it really in any way Shakespearean? And should we care?

The RSC's Cardenio is based on Double Falsehood, which Theobald claimed was derived from an original manuscript of a play attributed to Fletcher and Shakespeare. This is now thought to be The History of Cardenio, performed in 1613, which is lost but is believed to have been based on Cervantes' Don Quixote. Gregory Doran has in turn adapted the Restoration adaptation. Using Thomas Shelton's 1612 translation of Don Quixote as a guide, Doran cuts, reorders, and adds whole scenes to the Restoration play.

The plot revolves around the sexual misbehaviour of Fernando, who first seduces a wealthy farmer's daughter, Dorotea, with a legally-binding promise of marriage, then attempts to steal Cardenio's fiancée, Luscinda. Doran's additions not only include some of the play's highlights (such as the scene in which Fernando sneaks into Dorotea's room, superbly played by Alex Hassell and Pippa Nixon, whose powerful performances steal the show), but also add psychological complexity. Whereas, in Double Falsehood Fernando pursues both women at the play's outset, Doran reorders the text so that Fernando only meets Luscinda after he has slept with, and subsequently rejected, Dorotea. This is important in that Ferdnando's desire for Luscinda is placed within a context of the friendship between Fernando and Cardenio, which is more fully established in Doran's rewrite. In an important scene, added to the play, Cardenio councils Fernando against his plan to 'conquer Dorotea's integrity', warning him that 'most of love is lust'. Cardenio's advice, initially ignored, comes back to haunt Fernando once he has slept with Dorotea, when he is overcome (albeit briefly) with remorse and self-disgust. When Fernando subsequently falls in love with Luscinda, his desire for her seems therefore to spring not only from her beauty and from Cardenio's praise of her, but also from the heady mix of admiration and resentment he feels toward Cardenio. As in The Two Noble Kinsmen, Cardenio thus explores how erotic desire not only threatens same-sex friendship, but is also at times its product: born of the affection, resentments, and rivalries between men.

In the second half of the play, Fernando tries to marry Luscinda. Cardenio, believing his fiancée to have betrayed him, goes mad and retreats to the mountains where he bumps into Dorotea, disguised as the simple shepherd Florio. Events are prevented from turning tragic, however, through the intervention of Fernando's honorable elder brother, Pedro. In the end, everyone is brought together and Fernando eventually repents when confronted by Dorotea. Seeming to fall in love with her again, Fernando claims Dorotea as his wife, and Cardenio and Luscinda are united. All ends happily.

Even this brief description reveals some familiar Shakespearean plot devices (Dorotea's cross-dressing, the retreat to the pastoral, and the series of revelations at the end of the play), and critics now agree that Double Falsehood does contain some genuine Shakespearean dialogue. Nonetheless, the play feels on the whole closer to Fletcher than to Shakespeare, with its dramatic reversals of fortune, the characters' rapid changes of heart, and the theme of friendship and honor. Cardenio's insanity also smacks of Fletcher, who is something of an aficionado on lovesick madness (unlike Shakespeare, who is generally more skeptical about the possibility of losing your mind due to love alone). Moreover, although the multiple revelations at the play's closure are reminiscent of Shakespeare's last romances, such as Cymbeline (1610), the Duke's heavy-handed didacticism about the power of fathers (which is ironic, given the behavior of Don Bernardo) and the play's straightforwardly happy resolution seem very out of keeping with Shakespeare, whose comic endings are rarely achieved without gaps, exclusions, silences, or even an element of coercion.

In the late plays (the category in which the lost Cardenio belongs) there is an increasing emphasis on the human and psychological cost of such 'happy' endings. The Two Noble Kinsmen ends, like Cardenio, with a pairing off of lovers. But here Palamon is united with Emilia only because his best friend is thrown from a horse to his death. Watching Arcite die, Palamon seems to recognize not only what gaining Emilia has cost him, but also the illusionary nature of all desire; he comments: "That we should things desire, which do cost us / The loss of our desire! That nought could buy / Dear love, but loss of dear love!' (V.iv.110-12). Tellingly, in the Restoration adaptation of this play by Davenant this dark problematic ending is gone: Arcite does not die but rather marries Emilia, and Palamon marries the Jailer's Daughter, who is reconfigured as a more noble Celania. One imagines that a similar tidying up was done by Theobald to Cardenio.

Despite this, the RSC's ending is very moving, and Alex Hassell manages to introduce an element of unease, so that although we may not doubt the sincerity of Fernando's repentance, we do not trust in its longevity. Touching, too, is Christopher Godwin's performance of Don Camillo, who must wait painfully for his son, Cardenio, to be restored to him. In the end, Doran's Cardenio is a triumph. While it may not be Shakespeare, it is a play that engages with some of the central themes of Shakespeare's final phase and testifies to the possibility of successful creative collaborations across time.

Cardenio is on at The Swan in Stratford-upon-Avon until 6 October. Box office: 0844 800 1110