— Photo: David Blue
Oh, that wacky Shakespeare. We know he could do wacky in his early plays—wacky farcical in Two Gentlemen of Verona, wacky tragical in Titus Andronicus. And we know he could even do wacky within the late romances, as shown by the brilliantly hilarious drunken sailors played by women in Meg Roe’s The Tempest, currently on view under the big tent at Bard on the Beach.
But who knew he could do a completely wacky late romance? Those plays are marked by resurrection, forgiveness and reconciliation. But in Cymbeline Shakespeare seems to have gone entirely overboard. Halfway through the current Bard production, directed by Anita Rochon in the studio tent, my wife turned to me and said, “Shakespeare was on drugs when he wrote this.”
You’d certainly think so. Cymbeline appears to be a ludicrous play. And in that spirit, this production plays it mostly ludicrously.
The bizarre plot involves Imogen, daughter of Cymbeline, King of Britain; Posthumous, the man she loves; and Cloten, the man who thinks she should love him; Cloten’s evil witch of a queen mother; Iachomo, a nasty Italian who tricks Posthumous into believing he’s seduced Imogen; Belarius, an exiled Briton living in Wales with Guiderius and Averagus, Cymbeline’s two sons whom he kidnapped twenty years earlier and raised as his own; and Lucius, a Roman general who demands tribute from Cymbeline on behalf of Emperor Caesar, and when Cymbeline refuses, leads the Roman army against Britain. Oh, and the Queen’s doctor, who gives her exotic drugs; and Posthumous’ loyal servant, who helps unravel various plots to ensure that Imogen and Posthumous get back together at the end.
My theory is that Shakespeare wrote this one for the money. He recycles a good many of his own earlier devices—the girl who disguises as a boy, the villain who tricks the naïve hero into murderous jealousy, the potion that causes Juliet, I mean Imogen, to fall into a swoon that looks like death, and more.
All this gets set up in a first act that is played mostly straight, highlighted by Bob Frazer’s über-creepy Iachomo, who sneaks into Imogen’s bedroom to gather “evidence” to convince Posthumous that he’s had sex with her. But we get hints of what’s to come. Shawn Macdonald plays the Queen as a self-conscious drag act, and Anton Lipovetsky’s Cloten and his attendants (Macdonald and Benjamin Elliott) ham up a couple of musical numbers.
In the second act, as the plot becomes increasingly outrageous, Rochon discards most attempts at serious drama. She does this primarily through multiple casting of all but one of the seven actors. At first this seems Shakespeareanly clever: Lipovetsky, for example, plays both of Imogen’s suitors, Posthumous and Cloten, and at one point Cloten dresses in Posthumous’ clothes. In addition to Iachomo, Frazer also plays the Roman Lucius, and Mara Gottler’s costume design of a neutral-coloured fencing-style base for each actor allows quick changes. As Iachomo, Frazer wears a tight little jacket; as Lucius he replaces the jacket with a red sash.
But soon it seems more like The Mystery of Irma Vep than The Tragedy of Cymbeline, the point appearing to be how many times, how quickly and how comically an actor can change costumes and become another character. Now Frazer just puts on Iachomo’s jacket over Lucius’ sash, visible underneath, as he repents his plot against Posthumous and curses his own “Italian brain.” Lipovetsky, now playing Arviragus as well as Cloten and Postumous, whips on and off a single costume piece as the audience begins to get it: the comic speed and wit of the production is actually the point.
Through all this, Gerry Mackay as Cymbeline and Anousha Alamian as the loyal servant continue to play it straight, although Cymbeline has one of the inadvertently funniest lines in the play when the queen’s various evil plots are detailed: “Who is it can read a woman?!” Rachel Cairns, the only single-cast actor, also does her best to keep us taking Imogen seriously, even through the scenes, in her disguise as a boy, where the two brothers homoerotically welcome her to their family, and in her response to what she thinks is the corpse of her decapitated lover: “O Posthumous, where is thy head?!”
So what are we to make of this? Did Shakespeare mean it to be so funny? Who knows. Does it matter if the production embraces the absurdities of the script at the expense of other possible interpretations? Every production is an interpretation. This one may work as well as any other, although it lacks consistency and perhaps undercuts our taking seriously any of the reconciliations at the end. But Bard’s audience is entertained.
My colleague Paul Durras reviews Ensemble Theatre’s current production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi very critically in this week’s Vancouverplays. Malfi is a play almost exactly contemporary with Cymbeline, and the two share a lot of the same characteristics of Jacobean theatre circa 1610-20. Can this material just not be successfully played straight for a 21st century Vancouver audience? I’d like to think it can. I’m actually a big fan of this era, despite (or sometimes because of) the plays’ extremity or even absurdity. There’s a lot going on in them that deserves serious consideration. But they are certainly tricky to bring off.
Here’s the thing: a young, first-time Bard director is given this most difficult play to direct. She has made some strong choices in an attempt to make some kind of theatrical sense of it. Good for her. Maybe the real question is why does Bard do these marginal Shakespearean plays at all if even the company can’t really take them seriously?