The Cardinal, hailed as James Shirley’s tragic masterpiece, was one of the last plays staged in England before Oliver Cromwell’s ban on theatre. We spoke to Justin Audibert who will direct it at The Southwark Playhouse.
You’re directing The Cardinal at Southwark Playhouse, what can you tell us about the play?
The Cardinal is an action packed revenge thriller with political intrigue, thwarted romance, cheeky servants, honour fuelled duels, a huge gory body count and lots of very dark laughs along the way. The basic plot concerns the battle for influence over the King of Navarre between the hypocritical, power-hungry, sinister Cardinal and the quick-witted, brave and passionate Duchess Rosaura; it’s the immovable object versus the irresistible force in action but alongside that it has a really wide array of interesting characters; be they saucy servants, daring soldiers, star-crossed lovers, or gossipy courtiers. What is remarkable to us all is how this feels like a play for today with dark whisperings corrupting the nation and dividing people all in the cynical pursuit of power and only one character brave enough to speak truth to power…
How did you get in to Directing/working in the theatre?
I first discovered theatre directing aged 19 when at University in Sheffield. Before then I had no idea it was even a job. I had been in school plays which were directed by a brilliant teacher of ours called Jeff Shaw (Wilson’s School in Wallington) but I suppose I hadn’t put two and two together and realised someone could do it for an actual living. I was very lucky at Sheffield Uni because I was there at the same time as a whole bunch of very bright sparks who all were interested in pursuing a career in theatre (Alan Lane- who runs Slung Low, James Grieve and George Perrin who run Paines Plough, Lucy Prebble, DC Moore, the producer Paul Jellis) and I suppose some of their confidence or ambition rubbed off on me. I ended up applying for the MFA in directing at Birkbeck and whilst there had the great good fortune to work with a wide range of very kind directors who took me under their wing, most especially the brilliant Paul Hunter who runs Told By An Idiot.
You spent some time at the RSC, what did you learn from your time there?
I was very lucky to be an Assistant Director at the RSC for nearly 3 years (2009-2012) and in that time I suppose I developed my ear for how I think classical text should sound. I was truly privileged in that I got to spend time in such an array of very talented directors rehearsal rooms; Lucy Bailey, David Farr and Greg Doran. I was also lucky enough to spend lots of time with the incredible Cicely Berry both in the UK and in Brazil working with her in the favelas. Ciss taught me that with all classical text it is about making it sound fresh and new for an audience now and that is what I try to do when directing verse. When I went back to the RSC to direct The Jew of Malta and most recently Snow in Midsummer the thing that blows my mind about the RSC is just how good and specialised people are in their respective fields. You are dealing with experts of the highest degree like Alan the armourer – who literally spends his days making swords and shields – who are busting their guts to try and serve your vision of a story. It is a very humbling experience.
What most excites you about directing The Cardinal?
I am loving working with my incredibly talented and committed ensemble of actors who as always are bringing great ideas and energy to the room and I have an entirely new creative team which has been a delight. I suppose the most joyful thing though has been trying to figure out what James Shirley is trying to convey with each scene. It feels as though we are all wrestling with this very sharp, satirical, and psychologically acute mind and it has been a really worthwhile and exciting challenge.
It’s the first time the play has been staged in London since the 1600’s, does that bring with it a certain responsibility?
George Devine (founding artistic director of the Royal Court) famously said you should treat new plays like classics and classics like new plays and I hope that it what we are doing with this. The production is very stripped back, dark and moody with some brilliant actors really committing to bold character choices and being affected by what happens in the moment. I am hoping we are really letting the quality of the play speak for itself.
How does this play compare to others you have directed?
Every play is different and every play is intimidating in its own way so this is a tricky one but I suppose Shirley has a very distinctive and interesting take on humans that is both loving of their foibles but sceptical of their motives. It’s been great fun working this out.
What advice would you give anyone who would like to get in to Directing?
If a council estate kid from Croydon like me can do it then you can do it. As The Clash said; passion is the fashion. Go out there make work that you believe says something about the World around you and reflects who you are as an artist. Oh and make sure you don’t get into debt to do it so have a day job that sustains you and doesn’t kill your soul when you are starting out. You will certainly get the blues from time to time but I can honestly say I bounce into work every morning incredibly excited about the challenges ahead and that is a true privilege.
The Cardinal is at The Southwark Playhouse 26th April – 27th May 2017