by William Shakespeare
Directed by Sam Yates
Globe Theatre production
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
Saturday 5th December 2015, 14.30
Emily Barber- Innogen, daughter of King Cymbeline
Calum Callaghan – Cloten, stepson of King Cymbeline
Trevor Fox – Pisano, servant to Posthumus
Darren Kuppan – Arviragus, lost son of King Cymbeline, known as Cadwal
Christopher Logan – Cornelius, a doctor. Gentleman of the court. Ghost. Roman
Joseph Marcell- King Cymbeline
Pauline McLynn – the Queen, stepmother to Innogen
Eugene O’Hare – Iachimo, an Italian nobleman
Brendan O’Hea- Belarius, banished 20 years ago
Jonjo O’Neill – Posthumus, husband of Innogen
Dharmesh Patel – Soothsayer, Philario
Tika Peucelle- Mother, Helen
Paul Rider- Caius Lucius, Roman ambassador and general
Sid Sagar – Guiderius, lost son of King Cymbeline, known as Polydore
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
When we were told we had to read the Complete Works in late 60s drama courses, there were a few you could speed-read or tacitly ignore: Timon of Athens, Henry VIII, Pericles, Cymbeline. The last two have been elevated since, particularly in the Wanamaker 2015-2016 season where they’re doing four late plays suitable for the Blackfriars private theatre in chronological order of writing. Cymbeline comes second, and is running alongside Pericles (see link). Cymbeline was probably the first play Shakespeare wrote specifically for the indoor private theatre after he had already experienced productions in the setting.
We had been at the National Theatre the night before to see a cast of 36 with hugely complex stage machinery doing As You like It, and we’d agreed it was over-produced. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse varies between “zero set” and a few interesting additions as in the sails and ropes and planks in Pericles. Cymbeline was just the stage, plus one bed, one chest. No chairs, no thrones. Zero. It was a major contrast, we had hoped for a refreshing lack of stuff with fourteen instead of thirty-six actors, but our conclusion was that it was really under-produced. Too sparse.
Entrances were square through the middle in both directions until they got to the Welsh hills over Milford Haven,when the two lost princes tended to enter through the audience at the sides. After the racing around at the RSC and National, it felt stolid and square.
It’s an odd and convoluted play, twinned with King Lear in taking place in a pre-Saxon, and even pre-Roman Britain. The semi-mythical King Cymbeline is ruling Britain 50 years after Julius Caesar, and it is a client kingdom paying tribute to Rome. But it’s just reneged on the debt and declined the annual instalment. What it means here is dull costumes (to add to no furniture), more Jacobean than ancient Briton, though the Cambrian lads are in Dark Ages kilted drag, but they probably wore that in Pembrokeshire in 1610 anyway. When the Romans invade we get the red and gold clanking armour we know and love.
The audience going out seemed happy and impressed. The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, lit by candles, intimate, so close to the actors, is never going to be a disappointing occasion, though I guess in the third season, the magic of novelty is wearing off for regulars. It is very early in the run, though at full ticket prices, one should not have to make ‘preview concessions’ on a critique.
Our first issue was accents. It’s accent blind (and colour blind) in strong contrast to say Trevor Nunn’s 2015 revival of the Wars of The Roses which was criticised for not being colour and accent blind.
I thought that here accent-blindness, i.e. actors using their natural accents, was a total mess. Let’s start with Jonjo O’Neill, His natural Northern Irish accent worked perfectly when he played Richard III at the RSC a few years ago. Fine. Here he’s Posthumus, though they keep referring to him by his father’s name Leonatus too. OK, he’s married to Imogen (according to the Penguin Shakespeare edition) or Innogen according to the Wanamaker programme. I’m going to call her Imogen because the autochecker accepts that without lots of fussing and underlining. Her dad, King Cymbeline has Posthumus banished for daring to get off with his daughter. So he can be an outsider. No accent issue.
But then Posthumus trots off to Rome, where he gets in dispute with Iachimo, a Roman nobleman. Iachimo is played by Eugene O’Hare, and his accent drifts in and out of Northern Irish; Ulster vowel sounds abound, but he seems to be attempting RP, though at points I wondered if a bit of Italian was in there. O’Hare was born in Northern Ireland, and it must be doubly difficult playing against a fellow Northern Irishman. As they are supposed to be different nationalities in the play, and enemies, it’s odd to have them sharing an accent, while there’s RP from those around them. I thought O’Hare was trying to do RP but picking up accent drift from O’Neill. It marred his fine performance.
The Queen (Pauline McLynn) believes the Juilet potion is a deadly poison
Christopher Logan, one of the great current comic actors, is seriously under-employed in this production as Cornelius the doctor … plus a gentleman, a Roman soldier, a ghost and other odds and bits. Incidentally, Logan in Roman costume is intrinsically funny. Just as Eric Morecambe or Tommy Cooper or Frankie Howard were. It’s a gift. Though it’s not a funny part here. For most of these roles Logan’s using his normal RP, but perhaps they want to distinguish his different roles, so he’s Irish as the doctor with the Juliet potion … uh, William! You used that one before. The Queen believes it’s a deadly poison. But the doctor has fooled her: it will send Imogen / Innogen into such a sleep that everyone will think she’s dead. Logan does Irish well, that’s not the issue. But now we have three Irish accents including bitter enemies, and you start trying to work out why. Then in the second half Jupiter descends on wires in a billowing white dress (this Jupiter is female) and the father, or rather mother, of the gods is Irish too (though it could be Gaelic speaker Scots … I wasn’t 100% sure). I suspect that in doubling her with the queen, they decided an accent would separate the roles. But in the circumstances, I’d have said “Anything else but …”
Pisanio, the loyal servant of Posthumus has a strong Geordie accent, and a lovely accent it is. But it stands right out. Would it not have been good to have both Posthumus and Pisanio from Ulster? Or both from Newcastle? Is it only me who looks for these connections? A life spent recording accents means I can’t be accent blind when it comes to connections. Anyway, the accents really irritated me. I’m amazed there’s a programme credit for “Voice and Dialect” coach!
We can guess from the number of times Shakespeare used Welshmen in plays that he had a good comic Welsh actor in his company. Belarius (Brendan O’Hea) is living in a Welsh cave and referred to as a Cambrian and wearing a Celtic kilt. If you’re going to spray accents all over the place, why not give him a Welsh one?
Cymbeline (Joseph Marcell)
They weren’t quite colour blind either. King Cymbeline is Afro-Caribbean. His two lost sons, kidnapped by Belarius 20 years earlier when he was banished are (or look) light brown. That figures. But his daughter, Imogen, is white. The same was true of As You Like It the night before where Duke Frederick was black, but his brother and daughter white. I’m moving towards Trevor Nunn on the whole issue when it comes to characters who are related to each other.
The play has one of the longest denouement scenes in the canon. It was a good thirty minutes, working out that Posthumus wasn’t dead, that the two lost princes, Guiderius and Arviragus are actually Belarius’s supposed sons, Cadwal and Polydore. (The first sharing his name with a mountain, the second with a record label.) Then they had to work out the role of the Juliet potion, Iachimo’s treacherous lying deeds, the Queen’s evil plots … she’s dead by now, the letter Pisanio didn’t deliver, explain why Cadwall and Polydore were so strangely attracted to Imogen dressed as a boy (they didn’t know she was female and their sister, they just “loved him” at first sight), let off Lucius Cassius the Roman commander … it goes on and on. Thirty minutes of explaining and forgiving. In there are a lot of lines that William Shakespeare never intended as funny which drew a lot of laughter on stage today. ‘I’m angry!’ got roars for understatement, while Cymbeline saying of the queen, ‘Oh, she was naughty!’ brought the house down. That was deliberate here … the Penguin text is “Oh, she was naught.’ which the textual note explains as ‘wicked’ … we know that ‘naughty’ in 1610 is our evil or wicked. But I hesitate to add that without the “y” it could also mean ‘She was nothing.’ Anyway, ‘You naughty man!’ has too many echoes of Dick Emery in drag.
There were other bits later on that drew laughs, and I wondered how much they were lampooning the text. For example, there is a dream sequence where Posthumus, now unfetchingly attired in grey long johns is visited by ghosts. That’s when Jupiter descends. As she ascends back up, the ghosts chorus like chastised schoolkids, ‘Sorry, Jupiter.’ The actual text is ‘Thanks, Jupiter.’ Again,’Sorry, Jupiter’ got the laughs.
Imogen (Emily Barber) with Iachimo (Eugene O’Hare)
The big scene in the first half is where Iachimo, having failed to seduce the faithful Imogen asks her to store some plate for the Roman emperor in her bedroom, as you do. The plate is in a large chest, and it’s a creepy scene as of course he is hidden in the chest, creeps out while she’s asleep, notes the room decorations, steals her bracelet and peeps down her cleavage. He later convinces Posthumus he has slept with her by describing the mole on the underside of her breast. Well, he would have needed a light and a periscope, but it is a very creepy scene. It failed to creep.
Cloten (Calum Callaghan) with a gentleman (Christopher Logan)
At halftime we thought the production extremely dull. It did liven up in the second half, mainly because we started to get laughs … but I felt we were laughing AT the play as it is written, rather than WITH the play. For example, one of the two big scenes:
Cloten, the son of Imogen’s evil stepmother, the queen, is intent on raping Imogen and sets off to Wales to do so. He dresses up in Posthumus’s clothes, perhaps to add spice to the ravaging.
He meets the Lost Boys (sorry …seasonal slip) and fights Polydore (Guiderius), and it’s a good stage fight too. But then as Polydore gains the upper hand as the fight exits through the central doors, Cloten squeaks “Sorry!’ Big laugh. Was it appropriate? This scene merges with the Lost Boys discovering the corpse of Imogen, who has taken the Juliet Potion thinking it was some kind of tonic. She wasn’t feeling well, possibly as a result of dressing up as a boy for her travels, as Shakespearean heroines do, so thought the equivalent of echinacia, honey and lemon might help perhaps. The lads lay the headless body of Cloten, dressed in Posthumus’s gear next to her. Polydore thought he might as well decapitate him and they intended to perform a pleasant rustic joint funeral the next day. Imogen wakes and thinks it’s Posthumus’s body. One of the two major moments of the play. It got a lot of laughs. It didn’t help that the stuffed body had one of the legs bend the wrong way at the knee at one point, but it was mainly her discovering it was headless. I’m sure the author never thought of that as a laugh. The play is praised for eroticism, horror and humour. The horror was played for laughs. The eroticism wasn’t there.
Our overall impression was that it failed to convince. Yes, it’s the era when comedy and tragedy were mixed to effect, but while we laughed, I’m not sure it was where you should have the laughs. Particularly in the denouement scene, I felt the guffaws were directed at Shakespeare’s plot clumsiness.
We both said “Two stars” at the end. It’s the eighth or ninth Wanamaker production we’ve seen, and we thought the weakest of them all. Poor costume and total lack of design didn’t help. The incidental instrumental music was very impressive. The one song wasn’t really. . I will repeat there was a happy buzz going out and lots of applause, as there should be for the efforts of a small cast and we applauded hard too. Maybe it’s the play. The RSC are doing it in 2016 and we have tickets. And it goes to The Globe, retitled Imogen.
TWO STARS **
Five stars as usual
Why have they a photo of a man in 18th century costume as the flier? Absolutely no connection to the play. It might be from Farinelli & The King.
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Cymbeline – RSC 2016
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