Much as he is admired and venerated, the fact is Shakespeare was not one for recognising women. After all, although he wrote many great female characters, he never wrote for women to play them. Nor did he name any plays after women, excepting those plays where lovers’ names are used as the title (Juliet, Cleopatra and Cressida) and the less than admirable “Shrew”.
Be that as it may, the fact is that Shakespeare created female characters which are now, rightly, regarded as some of the greatest roles ever written. Imogen, the central character in Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s “late romances”, is surely one of the greatest of them all. Indeed, it is a mystery why the play is not called Imogen because everything about the play, every one of its many tentacles, touches and concerns her.
Now playing at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre is Sam Yates’ revival of Cymbeline. Despite some serious mis-casting and the odd directorial choice of staging, this is a clean, clear and thoroughly engaging production of a complicated and rewarding play, a play which has over the centuries been derided. George Bernard Shaw loathed it and Ben Johnson thought it “mouldy”. Here, it is vastly enjoyable and moves at a pace not conducive to mould. In some aspects, it positively shines – and this production makes a better case for Cymbeline‘s longevity than the recent production of Pericles did for it in the same space.
In the RSC’s Macmillan edition of Cymbeline, edited by Jonathan Bate and Eric Rasmussen, in an essay entitled In Performance: The RSC and beyond, the authors state:
Set in ancient Britain during the early Roman Empire, it also wanders unashamedly into Remaissance Europe; categorized as a romance, it recklessly juxtaposes the tragic, the comic and the grotesque; above all, it employs almost every plot advice available to the dramatist. Its cast includes kidnapped infants, star-crossed lovers, a wicked stepmother, a deceived king, an oafish villain and a smooth one, ghosts and gods, while its plot involves attempted poisonings, plots against a princess’ honour and life, revenges, murders, battles, disguises, wild coincidences and multiple reunions.To some it is a “glorious mishmash”, while others join Dr Johnson in deploring its “unresisting imbecility”.
Shakespeare, though, has ever been the one for intricate plotting. Many times the resolutions in his plays evoke titters: the many deaths which conclude Hamlet, for example, can raise laughs – but usually only where the production falls short. But that is not the only time. Great tragedy can be comedic – Shakespeare understood that. Just look at Titus Andronicus.
Cymbeline is not a great tragedy, but it has a deadly serious heart. Pre-shadowing Agatha Christie by some centuries, the intricacies of Shakespeare’s plotting in Cymbeline are assured and, importantly, resolve spectacularly with no loose ends. The themes of doubt, jealousy, loss, separation, travel, vengeance and redemption, so critical in his final plays, are all vibrantly present here, but the lighter mood, despite the more extreme plot twists, provides a unique and still quite fresh perspective. Indeed, with few amendments one could see Cymbeline as a Tarantino film or a few episodes of a future season of Games Of Thrones.
Like all murderous, sexually charged dramas, Cymbeline has its heroes, villains and victims. Except in one case, these are not clearly delineated by the text which, admirably, provides great scope for innovation and nuance in performance. The vision of the director and the skill of the performer can make a great deal of difference. With only 6 actors, and lots of doubling, the American company, Fiasco Theater, produced a knockabout farce from the piece which could, when needed, turn on a dime to become heart-stoppingly beautiful or tragic.
Here, Sam Yates adopts an approach which is slightly whimsical, does not dig too deep, but which tells the story in a mainly satisfying and engaging way. There is almost no set, but what set there is (Richard Kent) works perfectly. Candlelight enhances the inbuilt intimacy and claustrophobia of the worlds inhabited by the main players. The surprise appearance of the God, Jupiter, is both startling and funny. Costumes are more period than not and that works well; although the obvious fairytale connection is not made.
Yates sets the tone for this Cymbeline up front. A bit of group interpretive dance (Michela Meazza), filled with knowing looks and baleful stares, is followed by a scene in which Brendan O’Hea, tongue firmly planted in his cheek and eyes twirling with conspiratorial mirth, imparts the necessary back-history of the main characters to properly set the scene. It’s a tale full of convoluted calamity and O’Hea delivers it beautifully.
And then the narrative gallops off, with Posthumus’ exile from Britain, where Cymbeline rules, starting the cascade of events that will see, eventually, tables turned and redemption achieved for many, decapitation for one.
Posthumus is a curious character and, on one view of it, the true villain of the piece. He regards it as appropriate to wager on the chastity of Imogen, his supposedly beloved wife from whom he is exiled by her father. He is as flawed and jealous as Iago in his own way and the role offers a great deal to an accomplished actor. Jonjo O’Neill does not dig deep into the possibilities Posthumus offers, but he makes him manly, obsessed and, finally, wholeheartedly repentant.
Importantly, O’Neill’s Posthumous is convincing as a reformed, redeemed man. The mental anguish O’Neill displays when imprisoned is as believable as the wanton rage he displays on the battlefield. Not complex, but certainly complicated, this is an interesting Posthumus rather than an outstanding one. There are no reservations about O’Neill’s facility with the words: he is easy to listen to and follow and, often, there is rewarding richness of tone.
This is not something that can be said for Trevor Fox’s Pisanio, Joseph Marcell’s Cymbeline or Pauline McLynn’s Queen, each of whom plough through lines and speeches with indifference, incomprehension and irascible defiance. Often, it seems the sense and power of the words is irrelevant to them. Yet each role has its own particular pleasures to offer both player and audience.
The corrupted relationship between the archetypal evil Queen and Cymbeline is important to the fabric of the whole play. Pisanio’s loyalty to his master, Posthumus, and, through that, his devotion to Imogen, is a central plot point. Cymbeline’s flaws, whether imposed or organic, are equally critical. It is only with all of these plates spinning properly that the play can achieve its rich potential. Playing for the odd laugh is simply not enough.
The roles of Cloten, the evil Queen’s spoilt son, and Iachimo, the one who wagers with Posthumus that he can steal Imogen’s virtue, offer rich pickings. Each is a superbly complex character and each gets a chance to really shine. But not in this production. Calum Callaghan throws the part of Cloten away, opting for sneering class bully as the foundation point. It’s a dull reading, albeit occasionally funny.
Eugene O’Hare fares better as the opportunistic liar, Iachimo, although he never really examines the ramifications the character feels as a result of his lies and deceit. O’Hare’s Iachimo’s motivation is as aimless as his word is not trustworthy. He does the creepy scene where Iachimo invades Imogen’s bedchamber very well though, all sleazy indifference and impulsive risk-taker. But, very clearly, O’Hare has a more powerful performance in him. Probably, he and O’Neill might have made richer meals of the others’ roles.
In excellent form as Belarius, O’Hea injects energy and vitality, as well as accomplished verse speaking, when the action shifts to the cave where he and Cymbeline’s stolen heirs, Arvigarus and Guideras, live in rustic simplicity. All long beards, wild hair, hunting and gathering, this trio really works as a family unit, unlike the other families in the tale. Playing the sons with straight, sensible simplicity, Darren Kuppan and Sid Sagar are spot on. And the joy they express when Imogen, disguised as a boy, joins their camp is as touching as their pained lamenting when they think she has died. O’Hea is the best I have ever seen him in this role and walks the line between comedy and tragedy very well indeed.
But the night belongs entirely to Emily Barber who is quite superb as Imogen. She has perhaps the hardest scene in any Shakespeare play: awaking from a potion induced coma she finds what she thinks is the decapitated body of her beloved Posthumus and must speak some of Shakespeare’s most lyrical passages cradling it in her arms and then marring her face with its blood. It is nearly impossible for the actress to avoid laughter at this point but Barber quells most of the titters and makes the moment quite beautiful, profoundly desolate.
She plays Imogen as smart, independent and outspoken; she obeys her father’s wishes to a point but she is clear about opposing them. She sees through Iachimo’s tricks and gains Pisanio’s trust. She can be cutting and jocular, smart and sexy. When dressed as a boy, Barber seems somehow more attractive and her scenes with Arviragus and Guideras are touching. It’s a complete and totally captivating performance.
Christopher Logan seems to be channelling Kenneth Williams and Pauline McLynn appears as a startling incarnation of Jupiter via Barbara Windsor – but these moments, odd as they are, don’t detract from the overall achievement.
Yates’ vision of Cymbeline may not be revelatory, but it is a jolly good and captivating time at the theatre.