theater thoughts: Cymbeline by William Shakespeare, as performed at the Shakespeare Theater, Washington D.C. 1/30/11

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Cymbeline is one of the few Shakespeare plays I know absolutely nothing about.  I have never read it or seen it performed prior to this afternoon.  I had no idea what to expect. Cymbeline feels like someone took all of Shakespeare’s plays and put them in a blender.  Then, when the contents were retrieved, a studio executive ran in and said “look, your last few plays were really big downers, can you make this one have a happy ending?  We don’t care if it doesn’t quite work with the rest of the play, just give it a happy ending!”  There are so many plot lines, I think even Shakespeare was confused by the end, since the last 20 minutes of the play is a RECAP of the entire play.  I swear, you need some kind of chart to figure this one out.  But I’ll attempt to break it down as quickly as I can:

Synopsis:

Cymbeline is the King of Britain.  20 years ago, his two sons were kidnapped.  Now he just has a daughter, Imogen, though he did remarry and his new wife brought along her son, Cloten.  Also, the King has raised up an orphan named Posthumus Leonatus.  Now, Leonatus and Imogen have fallen in love and secretly married.  The King, of course, does not approve of his daughter marrying a non-noble.  The queen, Imogen’s stepmother, sees this as an opportunity to drive apart the father and daughter, and get her son into his good graces.  As the play opens, the queen tells Leo that he needs to leave the country.  The couple exchange vows of love, swearing that they will be faithful no matter what.  Imogen gives Leo her diamond ring, he gives her a golden bracelet.  He also leaves his servant Pisanio at the court, to carry messages between the two of them.  With a kiss, Leo heads off to Italy. The queen moves her plot forward, requesting poison from the apothecary.  The apothecary knows better than to give a queen poison, so she tells the audience that she has given her highness something that will just give the illusion of death.  Knowing that Pisanio will be in the company of Imogen daily, she gives him the vial, saying it is the equivalent of Tylenol and very precious.  

There, he meets up with some bawdy gentleman, the loudest among them, Jachimo.  After listening to Leo talk about how faithful and beautiful Imogen is, Jachimo wages that he could corrupt the girl with a single visit.  Leo resists but after much pestering, the finally takes the bet.  Jachimo heads off to court and first slanders Leo, saying he is messing around in Italy and having a grand time without Imogen.  She is distraught by this so Jachimo tries to put some moves on her.  She quickly figures out that he’s toying with her emotions.  Thinking on his feet, Jachimo apologizes and says it was a test.  He begs her forgiveness, then asks if he could keep his trunk of jewels in her bedroom for the evening for safe keeping.  She agrees.  That night, after Imogen falls asleep, Jachimo emerges from the chest, memorizes the layout of her bedroom, her bed, and sneaks a quick peek under her nightgown.  Before he goes back into the chest, he slips off the bracelet.  The next morning, Imogen searches for her bracelet and runs into Cloten, who attempts to woo her himself.  She says that she doesn’t like him at all, goes so far as to say she hates him.  She says, meaning it as a metaphor, that she loves Leo’s simple clothes to Cloten’s royal garb.  He takes it literally.  

Jachimo returns to Italy and convinces Leo that he was successful at infiltrating Imogen’s bed.  Infuriated, Leo tells Pisanio to kill Imogen.  Pisanio realizes that there is something not right about all this, so he takes Imogen away from the castle and tells her to disguise herself as a boy and hide in the woods until he can think of a better plan.  He gives her the vial of not-poison that the queen gave him, telling her it is an elixir to use if she falls ill.  When Pisanio returns to the castle, Cloten accosts him, asking where Imogen has gone.  Fearing for his life, Pisanio hands over the letter that was meant to lure Imogen into the woods.  Cloten demands that Pisanio bring him one of Leo’s outfits, and swears that he will kill Leo and then have his way with Imogen. 

RANDOMLY – Romans show up to demand taxes from Britain.  Cloten tells off the Romans and the commander tells the King to prepare for war.

MEANWHILE – in the woods we meet an old man and his two sons heading out fo the hunt.  As the boys prepare, the old man confesses to the audience that he kidnapped both of these boys from the King 20 years ago as revenge for his own banishment.  He has not told the boys of this.  When they return home from hunting, they find Imogen, disguised as a boy, in their home.  They befriend her and feed her a hearty meal.  After the dinner, Imogen feels ill and takes a swig of the elixir.  Thinking she has died the two boys morn and the old man prepares to bury her.  At that moment, a lost Cloten arrives, searching for Imogen.  He runs into the older of the two boys and verbally abuses him, demanding respect because of his princely title.  The boy has none of it and in a battle off stage, he manages to behead Cloten.  The old man is horrified!  The son throws the head into the river but places the beheaded body next to the body of Imogen, in burial preparation. 

Imogen, of course, wakes up and sees the body dressed in her husband’s clothes.  She thinks he is dead.  A Roman battallion happens to walk by at that moment and they enlist her into their group.  Also in the group is Leo, but as they march towards Britain, he realizes his loyalties still lie with his homeland, even if he is banished.  The old man and the boys also march into war.  The Romans and Britains fight, but it is the courage of the two lost princes that turns the tide of battle and they triumph over Rome.  The King calls the old man and the two boys into the castle and knights them.  They bring the prisoners before him to decide their fate.  The apothecary comes on stage and says the queen has died and confessed all of her badness to her.  Then Jachimo confesses his wrongs.  Which makes Leo step forward.  Which makes Imogen step forward.  Which leads to the old man telling his story.  And the King pardons everyone and it’s a happy ending all around!

YOU GOT ALL THAT? 

Yeah, exactly, this play has some inherent problems that would be a challenge to any company.  It’s a bit of a mess.  There are obvious plots that feel either lifted, or perhaps they were the inspiration for, Romeo & Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, King Lear, and Othello, among others I’m sure.  Plus, somehow there are fairy tales blended in, because it felt very much like Snow White with Imogen fleeing an evil stepmother and Pisanio faking her death and odd men in the woods befriending her. 

So, there is that.  It’s a hard play to perform period.  I feel like I should go and do a lot of research on what was going on at the time he wrote it, the inspiration for the story vs. current events that might have effected the story.  I think the actors at the Shakespeare Theater did a good job under the direction of Rebecca Bayla Taichman.  It was a very complicated story to perform.  Taichman chose to frame the play as tale being read from a book to a child.  The exposition was handled by the storyte
ller who held up a giant tome, occasionally show the child (and audience) some pop-up images of a barren tree, a ship at sea to help with those moments we don’t see on stage.  I think it worked.  It is better not to interpret this confusing plot as anything but a fantasy.  Looking at the text of the play, these lines were handled by lots of random walk-on characters, so giving them all to a single person was a nice way to keep it simple. 

The choreography for the battle sequence was spellbinding.  The narrator reading lines over the men waving their swords in unison, falling to the ground wounded then rising up again to fight.  This was probably my favorite moment in the play, it was clear that a lot of work had gone into making this flow in such a beautiful way.  And when the rain begins to fall, washing away the blood, it was a perfect image of the men standing under the shower with their faces and hands up. 

I did feel like there were a few missed opportunities and choices that were made that left the audience unsure of how to react.  The play is such a mix of action, romance, comedy and tragedy that it is up to the director to help the viewers know what they are experiencing.  Cloten was portrayed as a bumbling idiot, the actor speaking in an affected voice.  His obsession with his looks are played for laughs and he is very non-threatening.  Yet this presents a problem because the elder kidnapped-prince kills him with little to no remorse while off stage.  Because, at least for me, I never worried about Cloten fullfilling his plan to kill Leo and rape Imogen.  I assumed it would all go wrong because he failed at most everything else.  When his death is announced, you could almost feel the audience go “WTF?”, so much so that when the beheaded body is brought on stage, there was a chuckle, as if they still thought it was a joke.

On the other end of that is Jachimo.  Portrayed as a slimy, deceiving man, we expect him to get his come-uppence at the end.  Yet he manages to apologize and get forgiveness.  Now I’m thinking it would have been better that this character was played for laughs instead of menacing.  I feel like the portrayal of Cloten and Jachimo would have worked better had it been flipped.  If Cloten was portrayed as more of a dastardly character, a fool but a dangerous fool, then his murder would not have been quite so shocking and would have come as a relief because the audience would have been concerned he was going to manage to become prince.  If Jachimo had been played more as an overconfident jackass, than his apology and Leo’s forgiveness might not have felt so forced. 

The scene where Jachimo first meets Leo could also have used a bit of extra work.  They are clearly in a house of ill-repute (but of good reputation), yet the girls just sort of lie about.  Here was the director’s chance to show us Leo’s devotion to his vow while he defends Imogen’s chastity.  The women could have molested him a bit more, he was fresh meat after all!  There was a bottle of some sort of wine on the table, I think they should have handed him one glass after another, him drinking and pushing them away.  Then he could have been drunk when he finally gave in to the ridiculous challenge that Jachimo was laying out before him (and perhaps again when Jachimo returned with the bracelet).  It’s the same issue I have with Much Ado About Nothing when Claudio believes Hero has been dishonest.  For someone who confsesses to love someone, they jump to a horrible conclusion pretty quickly.  And while Claudio just embarrasses Hero at the altar, Leo orders Imogen’s murder! 

Rebecca Bayla Taichman directed last year’s production of Twelfth Night, a very well-known play which has some problems of its own.  I adored that production, seeing it during the original run and again at the Free-For-All.  Beautiful imagery and the cast did an excellent job handling the dramatic moments in this comedy.  But something in Cymbeline was out of joint for me.  I was enjoying it until all the plots started to merge and turn into an unstoppable snowball.  Like I said at the start, the complicated plot must have even thrown Shakespeare for a loop since the entire storyline is explained in detail during the final moments.   It felt like that moment in Spaceballs when Dark Helmet hears all of the breakdown of the movie’s plot then turns to the camera and says “GOT THAT?” to the audience. 

But, then again, I haven’t done any research on this play.  Perhaps parts of this story were well known to the people of his time, perhaps they would have known where it was all going – was something going on between Britain and Italy when Will sat down to write this?  I mean, why is that plot even there?  Or is it because if you remove that plot, it becomes Much Ado or Othello?

This was not an easy production and I have to applaud the Shakespeare Theater for giving it there all.  As usual, it was a impressive performance from the entire cast, the sets were gorgeous, and the whole thing came together on stage in it’s own way.  But Cymbeline is not simple or straightforward and maybe it’s a lesser known play for a reason.

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