Double Falsehood has a very chequered history: this curiosity has been hanging around in the Shakespearean apocrypha since its ‘discovery’ in 1728 by the Shakespeare editor and theatre impresario Lewis Theobald. He claimed that it was by Shakespeare and John Fletcher, with whom he collaborated on Henry VIII and Two Noble Kinsmen. Any credibility was lost when Theobald became a bit of a joke, after he was satirised by the acidic quill of Alexander Pope in The Dunciad (I’m feeling the need to stick up for poor Theobald and wonder if Pope was a little jealous). This outcast child was controversially legitimised in 2010 when the Arden Complete Works of Shakespeare published a fully annotated version of Theobald’s text, the version presented in this production, giving academics and regular theatregoers the chance to get a taste of what all the commotion was about.
What can be ascertained from an exercise like this is whether the play is any good dramatically. It’s neatly plotted (apart from some of the to-ing and fro-ing in the monastery where it gets a bit muddled) and tightly paced without any superfluous subplots. Phil Wilmott’s production is elegantly minimalist with its vaguely 1950s Mediterranean setting and lucid approach. The simplicity offers a freshness unburdened by intrusive gimmicks, encouraging the audience to pay attention to what’s on show, rather than fixating on the convoluted background.
In terms of content, this has all the ingredients of Shakespeare pastiche: star-crossed lovers, cross-dressing, a resentful younger brother, parents and children who are separated and reunited, and a miraculously contrived and bittersweet reunion scene. There isn’t much in the way of comic relief, but I can’t say I really missed that. Most of the characters aren’t particularly complex and the fairly workmanlike language only has a few striking turns of phrase, offering a sense of a play written by someone who is just getting to grips with the tricks of the trade – and perhaps trying a little too hard to get all the recognisable tropes in.
Gabriel Vick and Emily Plumtree speak the verse beautifully and have an affecting chemistry as the central lovers Julio and Leonora (an appealingly determined and outspoken young woman), who are separated by Leonora’s deeply unsympathetic mother (Su Douglas). She is to be forced to marry the bullying, snivelling Henrique, rapist of the servant girl Violante, before all can be resolved. Unfortunately, Adam Redmore’s Henrique is the evening’s weakest link, never seeming comfortable with his character or the language.
The unfortunate Violante (Jessie Lilley) is a breath of fresh air, a spurned woman who is more practical than desperate. She comes from the same tradition as the masochistic Helena who is happy to degrade herself for the sake of the moronic Bertram in All’s Well That Ends Well, and Mariana in Measure For Measure, who still loves Angelo after he abandons her. These are women who go to extreme measures to ensnare their men, but Violante doesn’t resort to trickery or grovelling and is clear-eyed about only being determined to marry her rapist in order to protect herself from disgrace (anyone who has sex in these plays automatically gets pregnant). I’d like to unearth a sequel (Double Falsehood: Take Two, perhaps) in which she murders him on their wedding night.
According to the gentleman sitting next to me, the official Shakespeare/Fletcher collaboration about thwarted lovers, The Two Noble Kinsman, is a real bore. Double Falsehood might not be a literary masterpiece, but it definitely isn’t boring. My totally amateur guess would be that it was based on a fragment of an anonymous Jacobean work, heavily embellished by Lewis Theobald. Whoever the author(s) were, they knew what they were doing.
Double Falsehood plays at the Union Theatre until February 11th. For more information and tickets, please click here.