This week I had the privilege of travelling to Stratford-upon-Avon to see two shows at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. On Friday night I saw Cymbeline, which is technically the second time I’ve seen it this semester (Imogen at the Globe, remember?).
This production seemed more focused on geography; for example, having the actors speak some lines in their own languages (Italian and French). If we are in an ever-decaying society, then why are the Italians so well dressed, if not to only help distinct characters from each other? This production decided to go with the spelling Innogen rather than Imogen. It is guessed by scholars that Imogen was an error made by the printers after Shakespeare’s death. There’s also the spelling Imogene, but that is not within the historical debate. The character Iachimo is like an Iago (antagonist from Othello) that realizes his mistakes. Leonatus Posthumus, our hero (heavy sarcasm), seems more like the ambitious younger brother than the war hero he claims to be. This is also because the actor playing Iachimo is larger in stature and has a greater presence. For the first half of the play, Innogen was a very feminine princess. A damsel in distress type of character, she is watched, idolized, and treated like a doll. It is not until she disguises herself as Fidele and travels through the woods that she becomes more of an individual. Of course she is already an individual, but what I mean by that is that due to this disguise she lives for herself rather than living for and by a man. Unfortunately I do not like Cymbeline, the king, being a woman. This is because Innogen is a woman controlled by men, and only by “becoming” a man and breaking free of her oppressors does she gain a stronger sense of identity.
Why do we empathize with Iachimo? Shouldn’t we hate him? In both productions of Cymbeline that I have seen, Iachimo has played the guilty party very genuinely and heartfelt. There are a hundred ways to skin a cat, as they say, so of course there are many ways to play a character. If and when I see another production of this play I’d like to see Iachimo played with more spiteful evil. This Iachimo was so fun to watch, he always had a smirk on his face and a devilish twinkle in his eye. The bedroom scene was very tense, and yet I felt somewhat relaxed by his vocally calm anxiety. We (the audience) were all joining him in praise of this beautiful object. Yes, he is sexually objectifying her, but Iachimo surprisingly praises her virtues as well, although sometimes Shakespeare is naughty and uses those as double entendres.
The back of the stage had three gigantic triangular flats that turned to configure each setting. There were also concrete walls on either side with graffiti on them. In the middle of the stage there was a boxed tree stump that rose to the ceiling (see picture below) when the wooded scenes began. The top is a tree stump in a glass case with the roots pouring out of the bottom. This was supposed to symbolize the last remnants of nature in the city, the dying hope for the future. What urgency was intended to be added by making this post-apocalyptic?
The queen, Cymbeline, seems weak, tired, and erratic.The play opened with Cymbeline watching old home movies of her three children projected on the back wall of the stage.Even before the play has begun we get the idea that this character is filled with the exhaustion brought by sadness. The duke is just wonky, very annoying, and uninteresting to watch. He is the exact opposite of his beloved son, Cloten. He’s very calculating which is necessary but extremely passive. There is no apparent level of betrayal in the duke’s performance. Cloten had some funny monologues and connections with the audience, but his weakness and self-consciousness wasn’t masked enough. His obvious weak ego kept a lot of fun out of the performance, I thought. Cloten is supposed to wear Posthumus’s clothing to trick Innogen into having sex with him, but Posthumus was probably at least a foot smaller than Cloten. The comedic contrast in clothing size was funny, but it made it extremely hard to believe that Innogen would be that stupid. Above all, who the heck was this woman lurking in the background? She mostly watches with a disturbed look on her face, but almost never has interaction with other characters. This was somewhat explained later, but not fully.
Also, what’s the big deal with Posthumus? Posthumus is an obsessive lover- he gives Innogen a “manacle of love.” His dream sequence was well crafted but not deserved. He was not a character that I cared about enough to watch a whole scene dedicated to his dreams. I really liked the use of puppets during the sequence, they were made of paper and gave very eerie movements. The following scene somewhat explained the lurking woman Philomina, the oracle, but not entirely. I believe it’s before the dream sequence that a tutu Innogen wore at the beginning of the play was sent bloody to Posthumus to make him think that Innogen was slain. In his grieving, he decides to wear the bloody tutu and a white ski-mask during the battle scene. Yeah. I never thought a tutu could be presented as intimidating!
Belarius’s joy outweighs his bitterness, has it faded over the years? Belarius (exiled friend of the king) was so strong, his presence was amazing. He (and most of the company) did a good job at connecting with the audience during lines. His adopted, sorry, kidnapped children Arviragus and Philicia were so tied to their father and each other. This was a very loving family and were very enjoyable to watch. These hunters lived in the woods, so their manners were more wild and rambunctious than those in the court. They were even given clip on dredlocks! Similar to the relationship between the playful lion cubs in Disney’s The Lion King.
It’s weird, because I really enjoyed the performance and yet I have so many problems with it. I like the anarchistic costumes (although, UGGS, really?), but the very chic European costumes seemed too big of a contrast. This, I realize, is to emphasize the impact of Brexit on these countries. The directors and designers focused on how the UK has been forced by their own decisions to gain a new self-identity because of separating themselves from the EU. Extremely subtle, but I guess I get it. With the concept, I really don’t think that a dystopian Brexit-land was the best idea. I liked the “up-rooted” idea from the tree, but it didn’t add to the show. In the program they wrote about a country seeking to gain identity, but this was never made apparent in their production.
I was hoping that the next night’s performance of Two Noble Kinsmen would be better, but alas, it’s downhill from here.