Royal Shakespeare Company, 2016
Opus Arte, Blu-ray
There’s something of an unsatisfactory cut-and-paste patchwork feel to Melly Still’s 2016 production of Cymbeline for the RSC, the first half in particular feeling messy and chaotic. A large part of the problem might be with the work itself, a late work of Shakespeare which does indeed feel like it blends together elements from many of his other plays. You get the impression that Cymbeline almost seems to want to revisit and fix all the problems that have beset characters in earlier Shakespeare works, or at least give them a resolution (or many resolutions!) that they better merit. There’s little doubt that most of those conclusions are satisfying when after many convoluted twists and tribulations they eventually come around, but it’s less certain that Melly Still’s production really manages to get to grips with the characters or their relevance within the period of the play’s setting.
That setting is the ancient Britain of the Celtic King Cunobelin, or Cymbeline as he is called in the play, around the time of the birth of Christ. Straight off, you have to wonder about the director’s decision to switch the genders of Princess Innogen’s parents and casting Cymbeline as a Queen rather than a King, with her stepmother Queen becoming a stepfather Duke. Other than distancing the play from the now familiar fairy tale convention of the wicked stepmother who procures poison in order to have her own line ascend to the throne, it’s difficult to see that there is anything to be gained by this other than potentially causing confusion to anyone familiar with the play (although it is admittedly rarely performed and little known). While it’s less than satisfactory that this requires rewriting of gender specific words and a little twisting of the text, it doesn’t ultimately prove too detrimental to the integrity of Cymbeline, but it doesn’t help make the underlying themes of the play come across any clearer either.
As a late Romance, the treatment of Cymbeline is a familiar one. There’s a lot of Shakespeare rolled into one here in its familiar royal family intrigue of rulers beset by misfortune and treachery and lovers unjustly kept apart. The treatment of the subject involves the other familiar tropes of misread intentions and misunderstandings that require characters to cross-dress or hide their identities. There’s comedy and tragedy and, like most of these later works, the twists of fate aspire to epic proportions of drama. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most knotty works, with many threads and characters interweaving, meeting by chance, creating huge complications that are nonetheless impressively ironed out by the conclusion. As far as the controlling the simple narrative function of the work and making it relatively easy enough to follow, the RSC’s production fares well – although it might take a few viewings to really see how it all pieces together.
Aside from the romance and the political intrigue, the actual underlying themes of the historical context of the work are less obvious in this production. Paired alongside King Lear for the RSC 2016 season as Shakespeare’s two works dealing with ancient Britain – together presenting quite a contrast in how the respective works deal with their subject – there is an interesting historical context that is vital to the purpose of Cymbeline and to all its chaotic plotting. The Roman subplot and Italian interludes – translated into difficult to follow Latin, French and Italian – might present a confusing picture of the world out beyond the shores of Cymbeline’s kingdom, but it is there precisely to show a changing world outside Britain, a complex, multicultural world that Britain needs to be a part of in order to bring order to its internal problems. Cymbeline should bring about its own sense of order to the chaos it sows in the first half of the play.
It’s true that there is no need to have the play set in ancient times to draw those themes out. Melly Still’s vaguely future dystopian setting suggests a post-Brexit vote Britain gone disastrously wrong. There’s an attempt to relate the matters it raises to the world today with regards to Britain’s place in Europe – the programme notes even including pre-Brexit vote discussion of the migration and refugee problems – but the production design doesn’t really do enough to give those matters the kind of weight the subject and the play need as a whole. The members of the royal court of Britain are dressed as in patchwork bohemian rags of mismatching outfits, the place they inhabit something like a backstreet ghetto of random tatty furniture picked up from a dump, the walls scrawled with slogans and graffiti. The scenes in Rome are a little more sophisticated and European, everyone conversing in multiple languages, hanging around in a Renaissance boho-chic club. If nothing else, it presents a strong contrast, but none of it looks particularly attractive, only adding to the general messiness of the sprawling plot lines.
The second half of the play at least has a more consistent tone, a kind of back-to-nature feel in the Welsh mountain forest setting where Belarius, Polydore and Cadwal hide out. It’s in this suitable setting that all the various twists and complications are eventually resolved. If the chaos of the first half tends to place emphasis on the cruel whims of fate, it’s only to show how wondrous the human resolve is to live through them, thrive on them even, and come through all the stronger on the other side. The forces that attempted to steer the British people away from making payments to Rome are banished (clearly on the Leave side, Cloten goes as far as to state “Britain’s a world by itself, and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses“) and order and balance are restored. It’s in strong contrast to the fate of the lovers of Romeo and Juliet, the plunging of Denmark into a bloodbath of death and war in Hamlet and, perhaps even more pertinently, in strong contrast to the epic tragedy of King Lear. Here, Shakespeare sees a more optimistic future for ancient Britain, one where “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered“.
With its youthful cast, Melly Still’s production at least handles the bright optimism of its younger protagonists, their ability to endure, and their capacity for overcoming adversity. And, my goodness, Innogen and Posthumous are certainly put through it in Cymbeline. You certainly get a sense of that from the performances, with Oliver Johnstone’s Iachimo scheming wonderfully to destroy that joyful spirit, with Bethan Cullinane a fervent Innogen that has depths of character and goodness, and with Posthumous’ tenacity fighting through at the end (even if Hiran Abeysekera’s delivery is a little mannered). The symbolism however is rather less successful at getting at those deeper elements in the play or in relating them meaningfully to a modern context. The chopped down cedar tree in a glass case that sits at centre stage is a distraction until Jupiter’s message reveals that the branches of a new tree representing Britain are to be formed by the resolution. The conclusion of Cymbeline however, successfully brought about here by the cast and the direction, is wonderfully cathartic – optimistic even in the face of what we know follows, not least from Shakespeare’s chronicling of it in his History plays. For now though, there’s a brief moment of hope, and that moment should be grasped.
The RSC’s 2016 Cymbeline is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Opus Arte. As with all the RSC releases, the A/V qualities of the Live HD broadcast are first-rate, and the production is supported by a booklet and several behind-the-scenes extra features. Melly Still’s contributions in an interview and full-length commentary in particular shed some light on the intricacies of the play and its themes and how they have attempt to get those across in this production. There’s also a good account of the real historical background of the Ancient Britain that considers its relevance to Shakespeare’s time.
Gillian Bevan – Cymbeline
Bethan Cullinane – Innogen
Hiran Abeysekera – Posthumus
Kelly Williams – Pisania
James Clyde – The Duke
Marcus Griffiths – Cloten
Oliver Johnstone – Iachimo
Bryon Mondahl – Philario
Director: Melly Still
Continue the conversation over on The Digital Fix Forum