Resurrection scenes abound in the theatre of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, the era we usually think of as Shakespearean. Think of Hermione’s statue coming to life in The Winter’s Tale, or the joyful reunion of Viola and Sebastian in Twelfth Night – each of them convinced that the other has perished.

It’s in the spirit of the period, then, that another such miracle should be taking place at the Southwark Playhouse, this one wholly unexpected, thanks to Justin Audibert’s glorious production of James Shirley’s 1641 tragedy The Cardinal.

Shirley doesn’t see the light of day much anymore, certainly not onstage, and you can’t blame companies from shying away from little-known works like The Cardinal, especially since this play bears more than a faint resemblance to far more popular works like John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi. But the doctor’s tests are complete and the results are in: Shirley’s heart is very much beating, and his crackling, powerful work is as alive as any play in London right now.

It’s a familiar plot, straight out of Webster’s playbook: the widowed Duchess Rosaura (the resplendent Natalie Simpson) loves the noble Alvarez (Marcus Griffiths), but she’s betrothed to the roguish Columbo (Jay Saighal), the nephew of the titular clergyman (Stephen Boxer), who’s a favourite of the king (Ashley Cook). (Got all that?)

One area where Shirley threatens to one-up his illustrious predecessor is in his unrelenting and masterful injections of ironic twists of fate, some of them show-stoppingly funny. The biggest laugh of the night comes moments before the catastrophic tragic ending, but Audibert and his sensational cast effortlessly ride out Shirley’s waves to control the currents of contrasting emotions.

The Duchess turns out to be the other big pleasant surprise in The Cardinal. Neither saintly victim nor scheming Jezebel, the Duchess always acts with refreshing resourcefulness and autonomy despite her limited power. That’s clear already in Shirley’s text, but Simpson’s astonishing performance makes a foolproof case for positioning Rosaura alongside (or dare I suggest above?) many of early modern theatre’s great women – Webster’s own Duchess included.

Duplicitous by instinct, dishonest as a means of survival, Simpson’s Duchess spends more of her scenes two-timing the men who seek to control her than speaking truth. It’s a tricky layering of performance upon performance, but Simpson ensures that the Duchess’ true intentions are always crystal clear. (Audibert’s masterful use of audience asides helps.)

Rosie Wyatt, Natalie Simpson, and Sophia Carr-Gomm. Photo by Mitzi de Margary.

Shirley offers a bevy of potential suitors for the Duchess’ hand. There’s Saighal’s appropriately boorish Columbo; Griffiths’ genuine, moving Alvarez; and the honourable-to-a-fault Hernando, played forthrightly and winningly by Phil Cheadle. But it’s the least likely candidate, the Cardinal himself, who proves himself to be her biggest rival, her greatest threat, and, at least on the theatrical level, her perfect match. Boxer gives a simultaneously wry and tempestuous performance – watch him calmly debating the morality of his nephew’s crime while the Duchess wails in a bloodstained wedding dress at his feet. Then see him violently dash a Holy Bible to the floor of the cathedral.

The gloves come off in three riveting rhetorical battles as Simpson and Boxer circle round the ring, each trying to out-act and out-maneuver the other. It’s never quite clear, until the final, fatal blackout, who has the upper hand; even then, they’ve both given this toxic relationship, fueled by desire for revenge on her side and lecherous obsession on his, everything they’ve got.

The poetic duelers are at their best in a sizzling scene in which the Duchess calls out the Cardinal for corruption and abuses of the church to his face. These scenes may well be the last great duets of the early modern theatre; a year after The Cardinal premiered, London’s theatres were closed for the next eighteen years until the restoration of the monarchy, by which point Shirley had long since abandoned his playwriting career.

Standout cast members bringing heft to smaller roles include the delightful Rosie Wyatt and Sophia Carr-Gomm as the Duchess’ witty, potentially treacherous companions; the good-natured Timothy Speyer as the Duchess’ secretary Antonio who keeps getting held at gunpoint or sword-point; and especially Cook (also the director of Troupe, the company behind this production) as the beleaguered King of Navarre, a leader trying to do the right thing but perpetually stymied by his total failure as a judge of character.

Audibert’s vivid staging makes fine use of the thrust and the simple set, designed and lit effectively, by Anna Reid and Peter Harrison respectively, to elicit a sense of claustrophobia. Audibert’s also recruited a strong creative team who provide some high-octane sword-fighting in close quarters (Bret Yount), a stirring choral and church organ soundtrack (Max Pappenheim), and a lovely wedding dance (Natasha Harrison).

At one amusing moment in The Cardinal, Antonio’s plan to put on a little play for the court falls apart. “Patience, gentlemen,” Antonio tells his distraught company members, “be not so hot, ‘tis but deferred, and the play may do well enough cold.” Shirley’s vibrant characters have been patient through their own nearly four-hundred-year deferral, but now, thanks to Audibert and his unmissable cast, they’re thawed out and burning brightly in Southwark.

The Cardinal is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 27 May.