Thursday, 29 September 2016

The RSC's 2016 production of William Shakespeare's "Cymbeline" (c. 1609): A Review

Cymbeline (first performed in 1611) must take the (hollow?) crown as one of Shakespeare's most obscure plays, with precious few of its characters and almost none of its lyric having entered the national consciousness in the manner of most of his others. Until last night, I had neither seen nor read it, and I'm something of a Shakespeare buff. Falling into the genre-defying "romances" of the late phase of the Bard's writing, it can most aptly be described as "utterly bonkers". I can think of few pieces of performed fiction (whether TV, film or stage) that are quite this odd, and Melly Still's RSC production playing at Stratford-on-Avon often only enhances this bizarreness. To whit: the eponymous character, and King of Britain, from whom you might expect a reasonably impressive showing given Shakespeare's usual treatment of his leads and of monarchs in general, plays almost no role in the plot; geography is completely and utterly thrown out of the window, as everyone seems to implausibly bump into everybody else whilst wandering around the Welsh and English countryside; characters appear to switch motivation; everyone reliably fails to recognise everybody else, even if it's someone they've known for years with a slightly different haircut; and the final act (one of the longest in the canon) more or less consists entirely of explaining the contortions of the previous four. Though I do not think the RSC's Box Office will thank me for saying this, easily-digestable, audience-accessible Shakespeare this is not. The most famous remarks about Cymbeline come from Samuel Johnson: "this play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity. To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation." Probably quite a few people would agree with him (I suspect most of you can detect a "but" coming).

And indeed there is, though probably with one extra 't' than you were expecting. My position can probably be summed up by suggesting that Johnson has not realised that he is the butt of the joke. Cymbeline works best, in the esteemed Harold Bloom's view, as predominantly parody - and, far more significantly, as self-parody, "a revenge by Shakespeare against his own achievements". The modern equivalent might be "chucking in the kitchen sink". He revisits his past plays only to take the piss out of them. It's Shakespeare piling in every trope he has thus far used in his career on top of one another, in ever more giddy plate-spinning fashion: mistaken identity, implausible wagers, long-lost siblings, difficult father-daughter relations, poisons that are actually sleeping draughts, wearing other people's clothes just for hijinks, cross-dressing... And there are moments of, frankly, breathtaking and downright hilarious idiocy that far surpass even the odd excesses of other plays: Cymbeline cheerfully decides at the end of the story to pay tribute to the defeated representative of the Roman Empire on a whim, which is all fine and dandy until you remember that the whole "umbrella plot" of the play hinges on Cymbeline being determined not to pay tribute, which is why there's a bloody war in the first place. Famously, the play uses that daft old "identifying mole somewhere on the body" chestnut not once but twice, with regard to two different characters. The play's final scene is best taken as a kind of comic farce matched only by some of Shakespeare's silliest comedies - and this plays out well in Still's version, with Doreene Blackstock's Cornelia getting the biggest laugh with her sudden line "O gods! I left out one thing!" amid the flurry of explaining the plot-heavy shenanigans we have all just witnessed. Yet this is a silly farce of an ending to a play that has often been very heavy going - aspects which might be played for laughs elsewhere, like Iachimo's (an excellent Oliver Johnstone) attempted seduction of Imogen, are here actually rather sinister, and there's been more than enough beheading, fighting, and misery to match Shakespeare's renowned and weighty tragedies. So what's going on? Why does this play retain the serious element only to so frequently be parodic? Can we really enjoy something that spends much of its running time jokily pretending to be deliberately bad?

Jonathan Morris, a Doctor Who writer who has also reviewed every one of Shakespeare's plays and thus makes for a helpful intersection of two of my interests, defines the romances rather well, as "a more far-fetched exercise, not particularly concerned with plot logic or characterization, taking place in an ahistorical, pseudo-pagan, mix-and-match land of myth... [they] tend also to drop deeply into tragedy for the first half, becoming truly bleak and miserable, before resolving joyously. They are about resurrection - they all feature characters believed lost and dead being reunited with their loved ones - renewal, rebirth... they are not far from being performed poems." Gosh. Performed poems, eh? Apart from not enjoying Cymbeline (heresy!), he's not wrong. Cymbeline is regularly dreamlike - the god Jupiter makes an unexpected appearance in Act IV alongside plenty of characters we know to be already dead - and makes good use of dreams and uncertainty about whether one is asleep or awake. Imogen, played absolutely superbly in this production by Bethan Cullinane, says at one point "twas but a bolt of nothing, shot at nothing" (which might be one of my favourite descriptions of fantasy ever written), and, later, "the dream's here still: even when I wake, it is/Without me, as within me; not imagined, felt". And, later, there is Posthumus Leonatus during Jupiter's bizarre arrival on stage: "'Tis still a dream, or else such stuff as madmen/Tongue and brain not; either both or nothing;/Or senseless speaking or a speaking such/As sense cannot untie. Be what it is,/The action of my life is like it, which/I'll keep, if but for sympathy." We can already detect some of the more well-known dreaming motifs in The Tempest, perhaps: life and dreaming intermingle in mysterious ways. As in all good fantasy, Shakespeare and Still thus both embrace the blurring of geographic and temporal reality - where we find ourselves in that Ancient Britain of Macbeth and King Lear (in Still's hands transposed into a derelict, dystopian Britain of the near future), the Rome that is visited is quite clearly meant to be Renaissance-era (here a suave, seemingly endless Southern European party, all disco-lights and club-beats, in which the characters speak entirely in Latin, French and Italian, with the Shakespearean text projected on the wall behind them). Still uses quick cuts, disorientating lighting, and hypnotic world music to keep us disarmed; characters smear blood on themselves, wear the blood-stained tutu of their lover whilst in battle, and in one charming decision, Posthumus himself (or, rather, actor Hiran Abeysekera) ends up playing the Jupiter he sees in his dream - further blurring that line between fantasy and reality. It's Shakespeare done on purely dreamlike, fragmentary, associative logic.

And so why Cymbeline works well (when it does work; I gather the BBC's 1970s production, starring a young Helen Mirren, is rather lacking) is because its central character Imogen is never part of this parodic tone but is in fact painfully, desperately earnest. The story, as I see it, and certainly as Melly Still sees it, depicts Imogen as a young woman growing up in a mad, mad world (one good reason why the play has even been staged under the name Imogen - she's just far more important and interesting than her father, and has three times as many lines). Bethan Cullinane is magnificent in the role, likeable and sympathetic whenever she's on stage, and going through a proper emotional arc in which we, the audience, feel invested as she ventures out of the (relative) comfort of Cymbeline's court into the wilds of Milford Haven (I'm not joking) and the Welsh countryside and then back via quite a raucous battle sequence. 

Better still, there is a sense in which Imogen is a kind of microcosm of Britain in general, and here we reach the real strength of Still's production. Imogen is frequently referred to with reference to the interplay of body and soul ('a temple/of virtue'), and this duality of physicality and spiritual interiority, both capable of being well or sick, hits the same notes as the portrayal of a post-Brexit Britain in decline. As without, so within; as above, so below. Queen Cymbeline's court (and the decision to make Cymbeline a queen also works wonders here, because the mother-daughter relationship has a tenderness to it that the rantings of a Lear-like king so often miss) is a sterile, bare place, graffitied and grey, with a tree stump standing in the very centre. The tree stump is of sufficient import here that it almost deserves a character credit of its very own: emblematic of how much Britain has cut off all its great flowering, if not quite at the root, at the very least leaving merely a stump behind. Shakespeare's critique of silly, petty, narrow-minded jingoism (refusing to pay a tribute to the Roman Empire just because, in the words of the oafish Nigel Farage Cloten, 'Britain is/A world by itself; and we will nothing pay/For wearing our own noses') is there already in the language, given that he was trying to appease King James I (and VI of Scotland) by portraying a united Britain with a good relationship with the rest of the world, but Still and the set designers bring it to the fore here. In the end, the tree-stump lifts up to unveil an earthy countryside world beneath: Imogen goes out from a sterile and oppressive court into the giddy wildness of the countryside, where she feels revived and returns home changed and for the better, ready to help the court blossom back into a fertile world of flowers. Similarly, in the end, 'a Roman and a British ensign wave friendly together', as the proper British place in Europe is reasserted and the rightful order of things restored. Much is made of how the following passage refers to Cymbeline being reunited with his/her long-lost children, but it could just as well refer to a Britain returning to Europe, grovelling to be allowed back in: 'and when from a stately cedar shall be/lopped branches, which, being dead many years,/shall after revive, be jointed to the old stock and/freshly grow'. Amid the silliness and parody of plot-heavy, political farce, a girl grows up, and a moving spell of old Albion discovers itself anew in the modern world, reviving, regenerating, renewing, and offers a new hope for the future.

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