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Faerie Tale Theatre: Stratford’s Cymbeline

Considering the obscurity of the play, I’ve seen a shocking number of productions of Cymbeline. The play is a funny bird. It’s nominally set in ancient Britain and Rome, in the age of Augustus, but the Italian scenes in particular appear to be taking place in the Renaissance. The main plot is about Innogen, daughter […]

Considering the obscurity of the play, I’ve seen a shocking number of productions of Cymbeline. The play is a funny bird. It’s nominally set in ancient Britain and Rome, in the age of Augustus, but the Italian scenes in particular appear to be taking place in the Renaissance. The main plot is about Innogen, daughter of the titular king, the wronged wife of an apparently good man roused to murderous jealousy, who has to disguise herself as a man in order to escape his wrath – a kind of Desdemona crossed with Rosalind. But there’s also her wicked stepmother, who wants Innogen to marry her cloddish son – or, failing that, to die conveniently so she can install him on the throne anyway. (There’s a convenient poison-providing doctor of the sort you always need in these sorts of productions who, needless to say, doesn’t give her actual poison but a drug that induces a simulacrum of death for a while. Of course, Innogen takes it, and is taken for dead.) There’s Innogen’s brothers, who were kidnapped in their youth by one of Cymbeline’s generals (who had been falsely accused of treason), and who have grown up in the wilderness not knowing they are of royal blood, thinking their kidnapper their father. And there’s the military plot – a burgeoning Roman invasion to enforce the terms of tribute laid down by Julius Caesar when he made his conquest. The enormously complex plot resolves itself in the mother of all recognition scenes, in which revelation mounts upon revelation until everyone is positively giddy.

So what is this play? Harold Bloom thought it was Shakespeare parodying himself, taking bits from all his better plays and mashing them together as a kind of personal joke. And I’ve seen it done as a somewhat absurd comedy, very effectively. A variety of more venerable critics – Coleridge and Hazlitt among others – find the work to be among Shakespeare’s most sublime, specifically for the character of Innogen, who, in their description, turns into a heroine out of an Anderson fairy tale. And I’ve seen it done that way.

The current Stratford production plays it straight. The garb is Renaissance when the scenes suggest it – and suddenly Imperial Roman when the scenes demand that, and the tone shifts with the scene: the bet with Iachimo, which springs the jealousy plot, is as deadly serious as anything in Othello, and played to feel real, but the wicked stepmother is a fairy tale figure. The two figures who need to hold together through the wild shifts in tone are Innogen and her father. But I found both to be surprisingly vague. As a consequence, I wasn’t really sure what this particular Cymbeline was about.

Director Antoni Cimolino frames the play with two added scenes of the king. At the beginning, he’s in bed, surrounded by the shadowy figures of his court, and shouts the first line of the drama – “You do not meet a man but frowns” – and then cries out his daughter’s name – “Innogen!” before being whisked with his bed off stage. The play proper then begins, the initial line repeated by its proper speaker, and off we go. And at the end of the play, after Cymbeline has been reunited with his long-lost boys, has pardoned his Roman prisoners, agreed to pay them tribute, and declared a general peace – we’re back to the spotlight on the king and the court, in shadow, surrounding him, and he looks, fearfully, about him, before the blackout.

What does this framing mean? It’s hard for me to say, because Cymbeline, the king, has very little in the way of defined character. All we know about him from the play is that he wants his only heir to marry someone of her station (unsurprising if not terribly sympathetic), and that his second wife is a real piece of work, and he’s the only one who doesn’t seem to know this. I’ve always thought that Cymbeline was a bit dim, which isn’t a very interesting interpretation, but Cimolino clearly thinks he’s a figure of considerably greater stature, and greater importance to the drama, and Geraint Wyn Davies acts him as the king – a man of authority. But if we’re supposed to take this as a play with Cymbeline at the center, what is that play about? I don’t know. One presumes it’s a father-daughter story, like The Tempest, or King Lear (or As You Like It, or The Taming of the Shrew, or . . . the father-daughter relationship is kind of a favorite of Shakespeare’s). Geraint Wyn Davies has played some moving fathers of daughters before – his Polonius four years ago was exceptional, and he’ll make an interesting Prospero one of these days. But I didn’t sense what lay at the core of his relationship with Innogen, and the framing didn’t elucidate it for me.

(Not to impose my own vision on the play, but if I were looking for a way in to a deeper Cymbeline, I would start by asking why he thinks Innogen isn’t fit to rule his kingdom – why he wants to marry her off so badly to a plausible king that he overlooks Cloten’s obviously egregious faults. Cymbeline himself is ruled by a woman – his wife. Does that point to a reason why he might be terrified of his land being ruled by his daughter? His sons were stolen from him, and now he wants to saddle his only daughter with an obvious buffoon – is he punishing her because she isn’t a boy? Is he punishing himself for his own negligence with regard to his own sons by replacing his own issue with that of his wife by another man? Anyway, these are thoughts for another production – my main point is that a deeper Cymbeline is inevitably going to be a darker Cymbeline, and that’s not the direction this production goes.)

Personally I’ve always thought the play was about the daughter, by far the largest character in the drama, but Cara Ricketts’s Innogen didn’t gel for me in the early scenes, and as the play wore on, I became conscious of a passivity that hadn’t struck me in the character before. More than is typical for a Shakespeare heroine, Innogen always depends on the kindness of strangers. Pisanio comes up with the idea of cross-dressing. When she meets the mountaineers, they (thinking her a boy) are instantly won over to her for reasons none of them can fathom (neither she nor they know they are her brothers). After she wakes from her sleep of apparent death (caused by the queen’s drug), she is discovered by the Romans, who are also instantly charmed by her, and take her in.

Innogen takes only five substantial actions in the entire play on her own initiative, unbidden by others: (1) she rejects Cloten’s overtures; (2) she rejects Iachimo’s overtures; (3) she steals food when desperate with hunger; (4) she demands that the imprisoned Iachimo explain how he got her ring (he won it of her husband); and (5) she embraces her weeping husband after he confesses that he killed her (he not having recognized her in her disguise as a boy). Compare that list to Rosalind, who takes the initiative to flee in disguise, who buys the shepherd’s cottage, who tutors her future husband in wooing, and who arranges the final recognitions. Compare that list to Viola, who also takes the initiative in disguising herself as a boy, who seeks out a position serving Duke Orsino, who woos a lady (successfully), fights a duel (less so), etc. Let’s not even talk about Cordelia.

It’s striking when you lay it out, and it’s very much in the play, so I can’t complain that it’s wrong to play that passivity up. But I hadn’t noticed it in prior productions, so something about the performance highlighted this character trait for me. Ricketts didn’t come off as a strong woman. She came off as a charming girl. When she approaches the mountaineers’ cave, near starving, there’s something comical about how she girds herself for combat with whoever might be lurking inside. It’s effective and charming, but it lightens a moment that I’m not sure needs lightening, because we haven’t yet become convinced of her desperation. Ditto with her repulse to Cloten, which comes off as more annoyed than fed up, and her repulse to Iachimo, which is fearful more than outraged – she calls Pisanio for protection from this dangerous man, not to have him cast in irons for insulting the daughter of a king. It’s all of a piece, and I’m sure it’s intentional; I saw Ricketts play Ruth in last year’s The Homecoming, so I can assure you, she has no trouble playing very strong women when she wants to. And it works, it makes sense, but for me, it made me less interested in the character, and I didn’t fully warm to her until fairly late in the play, when she wakes beside the headless body of what she thinks is her dead husband. Her lamentation – though I still found it girlish – felt real, a deeply dredged up mourning. And from there through to the end of the spectacular recognition scene, I was with her.

So where was I before that? Well, more than in any prior production of the play, I was with the men – with Posthumous and Iachimo. The scene where they make their bet on Innogen’s virtue was perhaps the strongest in the whole play; I was riveted. Graham Abbey was a vigorous, headstrong Posthumous. I believed that he would dare to marry the daughter of a king in the face of her father’s wrath. I believed his confidence in his own right arm against Iachimo and against the Roman legions. He even made his schoolboy misogyny seem authentic, coming from a place of real pain. Posthumous can sometimes seem a bit akin to the odious Claudio, too ready to believe the worst about his wife on too flimsy evidence. But Abbey’s Posthumous became the man he was precisely in order to be worthy of a woman of Innogen’s stature. Her besmirching didn’t just cost him his faith in her, but in his whole life to that point. It’s a huge fall, and the echo resounds through the rest of his performance, gives depth to his “of course once she’s dead he’s sorry” moment, which too often only emphasizes Posthumous’s shallowness, but here makes us feel the authentic Othello-level horror when you realize you’ve killed the thing you love, as each man does, eventually, and leads you to seek the release of death yourself.

And he was perfectly matched to Tom McCamus’s world-weary Iachimo. In my previous experience, Iachimo has always been played with slick braggadocio, but McCamus plays him as an old wolf bored into action by what he sees as Posthumous’s bragging, this English upstart expecting us all to be impressed by tales of his hicktown sweetheart. The tension in the betting scene builds and builds and builds – and doesn’t fully release until the reconciliation at the end of the whole drama. McCamus’s strength continues into the wooing scene with Innogen, where, again, for the first time I felt like Iachimo knew what he was doing, could imagine Innogen believing his unlikely tales about Posthumous’s whoring revelry. He’s a great actor playing a great actor. And later, when he emerges from hiding in a trunk to observe the sleeping Innogen, my back tingled with the possibility that this time, Iachimo might get carried away, and forget that his job was to observe her, not to ravish her. It’s an electric performance from end to end, and for the first time I didn’t feel the jealousy plot contrived. On the contrary, it very nearly took over the play.

It did so not only because these two performances are the strongest in the play, and not only because of Innogen’s girlishness, but because the other plots – what you might call the Cymbeline plots, as they all relate more to the king than to his daughter – never come into sharp focus. The weak link here – surprising, to me – is Yanna McIntosh, whose evil stepmother queen never seemed to me to be a defined personality. When I think about her performances as Lady Macbeth, or as Elizabeth in last year’s Richard III, or as Helen in The Trojan Women, the contrast is notable. Yes, Cymbeline’s queen is a fairy tale villain, but that’s the challenge – to make that cartoon real. Because a great deal of plot hangs on her. She, after all, is the one behind the challenge to Rome, so if she isn’t real then the war isn’t real. What pushes Cymbeline to challenge Rome is connected, to me, to what pushes him to reject his daughter, and both threads lead back to the queen. The reconciliations at the end derive their force from the power of the sundering that precedes them. With the Posthumous plot, that power is manifest. With the Cymbeline plots, less so, because we don’t know what his relationship with his wife is about, in part because we don’t know who she is.

Mike Shara makes a generally excellent Cloten. His strongest scene was where he brings musicians to play wooingly at Innogen’s window; his dialogue is a parody of Shakespearean naughty puns, and Shara makes the most of them, deliriously oblivious to the eye-rolling of his companions. But I felt like he was on a bit of a leash in some of his scenes. I wanted even more. In smaller roles, E.B. Smith, as the mountaineer who turns out to be the eldest son of the king, stands out for his plainspoken directness, and Peter Hutt makes the most of the small role of the doctor who provides the seeming-fatal drug, delivering his lines with perfect comic timing. And the cast as a whole is as strong as we should expect from a bench as deep as Stratford’s.

It’s a solid production, and well worth seeing. The acting in general is excellent, and Abbey and McCamus are on fire. But, as the director, Cimolino, is the incoming Artistic Director of the Festival, many reviewers have looked to this production for signs of what his tenure will be about. And I’m just not sure this production will bear that freight. Last year’s Grapes of Wrath, or his Coriolanus from several years ago, strike me as better guides to what he can do as a director. This Cymbeline should reassure about his commitment to the text – to doing the play, not burying it under conceptual scaffolding. But I don’t need that reassurance. I already know his commitment to those central values of any classical company. I take that commitment – and his facility with the text, and with his actors – for granted. I’m holding him to a higher standard: transcendence. There are moments in this production that achieve that exalted level. I just want more of them.



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