Cymbeline

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Sam Wanamaker Playhouse (Shakespeare’s Globe)

FirstFolioCymbeline

This was my first time in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, which is like a jewel-box – exquisitely painted and carved, and surprisingly small. The original indoor playhouse owned by the King’s Men, Blackfriars, was built inside the refectory of the old Blackfriars monastery, the place where the trial of Anne Boleyn was held, which just seems so odd. I wonder if they ever performed Henry VIII there.

Anyway, indoor theatres clearly allowed Shakespeare more scope in his writing – Cymbeline contains more breadth of place and action, from the intimacy of a bedchamber to the grandeur of Jupiter descending from the heavens*. The indoor location also gives the director more scope to play around with lighting (the chandeliers rise and fall, the cast can hold candelabra, and of course candles can be lit or unlit) and the beeswax candles gives the playhouse a wonderful scent too. It does also come with a couple of health warnings – pick the wrong seat and you’ll find yourself with no back support to lean against, and the seats nearest the stage looked much at risk from both running cast members and errant wax drips from above…

If you don’t know Cymbeline (and why should you) it is an odd play, one of Shakespeare’s latest. There are some familiar elements: lost heirs, misplaced jealousy, fathers and daughters, but together they tell an unusual tale of a king of England in the time of the Romans. Some of the details come from historical sources like Geoffrey of Monmouth, other sub-plots seem to have been tacked on at will. I won’t attempt to summarise the whole thing here – that’s what Wikipedia is for…

The cast were fabulous – particularly Pauline McLynn as the Queen. She also played Jupiter** – and I don’t know why the resemblance to Mrs Doyle was much more striking as a god than a queen, but it really was. I wasn’t so keen on Imogen – she came across as a bit overly ditsy – but Cornelius (Christopher Logan) was great and Trevor Fox, who was so funny in Measure for Measure, was wonderful as the upright and faithful Pisanio.

Jonjo O’Neill was fabulous as Posthumus: honourable, passionate and loving. I listened to him read Patroclus’ funeral wonderfully at about midnight in the Iliad read-through – in Cymbeline he was a hero who you could just about believe was worthy of the praise on top of him:

I do not think so fair an outward and such stuff within endows a man but he.

Between the Iliad and this – and despite Posthumus’s absence from stage for, I think, all of Acts 3 and 4, he has catapulted himself well up the list of actors I’d go and watch in anything***.

The actors playing Imogen’s brothers did a good job of playing noble-under-a-layer-of-dirt, but had picked up from somewhere exactly the same way of playing with their wigs which Ben Wishaw had in the Bakkhai – weirdly distracting.

The costuming, as it is in the Globe, was some sort of minimalist Jacobean-esque style. I coveted Pauline McLynn’s beautiful velvet-and-lace cardigan/jacket, but was a bit bemused by the Roman soldiers’ red trousers under their tunics (I suppose it prevented any flashing in the battle scenes) and also by Posthumus’s layering-up – at one point he changed from British garb which he just happened to have on, Superman-style, under his Roman tunic.

 

I don’t know what Cymbeline’s official designation is (I suppose comedy, since nobody much dies – but then no-one gets married at the end either). This production definitely played it for laughs, especially the final denouement where the world and his wife have to get together to explain what on earth has been going on to the poor confused Cymbeline. But when you read some of Shakespeare’s lines you feel like he may have been laughing up his own sleeve in any case:

2nd gentleman: That a king’s children should be so convey’d, so slackly guarded, and the search so slow that could not trace them

1st gentleman: Howsoe’er ‘tis strange, or that negligence may well be laughed at, yet ‘tis true sir****

But other moments stood out from the humour – the bedchamber scene where a sleeping Imogen is molested should definitely come with a trigger warning, its creepiness greatly enhanced by the very low lighting and the intimacy which comes from a small theatre. Imogen’s brothers singing over her dead-not-dead body (“Fear no more the heat of sun” – one of Shakespeare’s better songs, I think). Posthumus’s great regret for ordering the death of Imogen – the more so since he doesn’t wait to be proved wrong but just realises his error. And best of all, this post-battle exchange:

Posthumus: [rhyming quartet] You have put me into rhyme.

Lord: Farewell; you’re angry.

That’s Shakespeare, managing post-modern humour before anyone’s got around to the modern bit…

 


 

* The stage direction calls for Jupiter to descend “in thunder and lightning, sitting upon an eagle”. Shakespeare had clearly gone spectacle mad. I blame those masques.

** Because why not have Jupiter in your play? It’s mostly set near Milford Haven, but with a Roman army, some ghosts, and a woman who both dresses as a man and takes a medicine which leaves her seemingly, but not actually dead. It’s pretty much house in Shakespearean comedy Bingo.

*** It’s just a mental list but, to be honest, it would be massive help if I actually wrote it down and maybe set up some kind of RSS feed so I knew when they were actually in something…

**** Looks like Shakespeare invented lampshading as well as everything else in drama.

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6 thoughts on “Cymbeline

  1. Well, I knew nothing at all about Cymbeline before your review and it does sound a bit – messy, plot wise? An odd jumble of comedy / creepiness and near tragedy. And if in doubt – bring on a god!
    The Sam Wannamaker Theatre looks beautiful – saw the BBC screening of The Duchess of Malfi with Gemma Arterton as the Duchess and just the idea that you can watch a Jacobean play in a replica Jacobean theatre – by candle light! I really must go, just for the experience.
    How do you feel now you’ve actually seen Cymbeline, Cymbeline? Odd, or happy?

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    • The plot is complex but actually not worse than A Midsummer Night’s Dream (no-one can tell me, on sober reflection, that Greek kings and queens and the Rude Mechanicals really belong the in the same play. And that’s completely ignoring the fairies…)
      I’m coping with the existential odd-ness, so far (I angsted for long enough before buying the tickets that my mind was clear by the time I say the show). Genuinely much more concerned about Henry VIII but that really doesn’t roll off the tongue in the same way, and I’m not renaming myself now 🙂

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      • Yes, he did produce a few ‘mash-ups’, didn’t he – a real mix of influences coming out in a few of the stories.
        And I’ve never seen a production of Henry VIII advertised, let alone actually seen it – why is it so rarely put on, I wonder?

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      • Shakespeare as the first mas-up artist. Sounds about right 🙂

        I don’t know about Henry VIII; I suspect the ambiguous lines Shakespeare treads don’t sit well with a modern sensibility that likes to think of Henry as an out-and-out villain…

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