Chronicling a Love Affair with Canadian Theatre


Cymbeline At The Stratford Festival

William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, which is receiving a disappointing production at the Tom Patterson Theatre, is the most problematical of the Bard’s so-called “problem plays.”

Critics from Dr. Johnson to Harold Bloom have wrestled with explicating the play with middling success and I am not foolish enough to try. Cymbeline is a wild fantasy, a conglomeration of themes and hoary plot devices that make for an often indigestible theatrical stew with an overriding theme of redemption and reconciliation, much like Winters Tale and The Tempest, two other late plays. Handled properly, however, it can make for an exciting evening in the theatre.

Unfortunately Esther Jun, tackling her first ever Shakespearean directorial assignment, has not solved the problems that Cymbeline presents.

Set in an ancient Britain threatened by the imperial designs of Rome, Cymbeline centers on the travails of Innogen, daughter of king Cymbeline, who has remarried a supremely nasty woman, who is the progenitor of every evil stepmother in literature. She has an idiot son, the aptly named Cloten, whom she hopes to marry to Innogen to forge her own dynastic dreams. Innogen however has secretly married Posthumous, a man of lower birth, whom an angry Cymbeline banishes.

Posthumous heads to Rome, where he meets a nasty piece of business named Iachimo who mocks his devotion to fair Innogen and bets him that he can prove her faithless. Posthumous, who is clearly unworthy of Innogen – why do women marry jerks? – takes him up on the bet. Iachimo fails to seduce the constant Innogen but manages to convince Posthumus he has “enjoyed” her. Meanwhile the evil queen, seeking a shortcut to her goal, is plotting to kill Innogen and procures poison from a compliant doctor.

Outraged by Innogen’s seeming betrayal Posthumus sends his servant Pisanio to Innogen with a letter telling her to meet him in Wales but also with instructions for Pisanio to kill her. Pisanio refuses to do this and so, disguised as a boy, Innogen treks into the wilds of Wales where she happens on a cave occupied by Belarius.

Had enough plot? I have. And I haven’t even mentioned Cymbeline’s long-lost sons, ignorant of their royal origins, being raised by Belarius, the beheading of Cloten, Innogen’s service as a page boy to a Roman general, or the cameo appearance of the winged god Jupiter! Like I say, a heady stew.

You may also have noticed any number of plot devices used in other Shakespeare plays: poisons that turn out to be sleeping drafts, women disguised as boys, insane jealousy, mistaken identity, among them. There are so many resonances to other works that Harold Bloom thought Cymbeline was an exercise in self-parody by a playwright weary of churning out play after play.

In a programme note, Jun goes on at some length about how much she loves Cymbeline, which made me wonder why she mucked about with it so much. King Cymbeline becomes Queen Cymbeline (a fierce looking Lucy Peacock) and the evil stepmother queen becomes “Duke” (a suave Rick Roberts). Posthumus’ man servant, Pisanio (a solid Irene Poole), too, swaps genders.

Of course, in an acting company that strives for the laudable goal of gender parity casting a sprawling play like Cymbeline with a plethora of male characters presents some challenges that can often result in unfortunate choices, like the queen’s two guards.

Shakespeare opens the play with two anonymous gentlemen providing lengthy exposition about what’s happening in Cymbeline’s realm. Jun brings the entire company onstage in a billowing cloud of stage smoke (can that be healthy?) and assigns the task of exposition to the god Jupiter and a soothsayer, characters who don’t appear until much later in the play. It’s a seemingly odd device but it has the virtue of allowing each character to be identified, giving the audience a bit of a head start on keeping track of them later in the play.

Innogen and Posthumus are played by Allison Edwards-Crewe and Jordin Hall respectively. These two have become the Festival’s go-to choices for many of Shakespeare’s young heroes and heroines. Unfortunately, Jun has encouraged them to tear their passions to tatters. Lines of verse that should flow on one continuous breath are chopped up staccato style and there’s far too much shouting.

Another misstep is Cloten (Christopher Allen) who has been directed to signal his character’s weakness by being effeminate; even so, Allen in his Stratford debut gives every indication of being a solid actor.

Lucy Peacock, now in her 37th season with the Festival, does remarkably well as Cymbeline, although her mercifully brief appearance as the swashbuckling leader of the English army strains credulity. As Iachimo, Tyrone Savage handles the verse well but falls short of the oily evilness the part demands; the scene in which he invade Innogen’s bedchamber should make your flesh crawl. Here it occasions the odd chuckle from the audience.

Festival stalwart Jonathan Goad, who would have been a much sounder choice to play Cymbeline, makes a fine Belarius, the traitor who absconded to his cave with the king’s . . . er, I mean queen’s sons.

Echo Zhou handled sets and lights. Her lighting was especially successful in directing audience attention where it needed to be in this plot-heavy play. The sets, as is so often the case on the elongated stage of the Tom Pat, were largely minimal, with furniture sliding on and off as needed, but the symbolism of an immense, apparently dead tree upstage that glowed green from time to time escaped me.

Costume designer Michelle Bohn has contributed some handsome costumes, especially for the upper crust characters, although I wish someone had rethought the silly gold helmets on the queen’s guards.

Fight director Anita Nittoly has choreographed one of the least successful fight scenes I’ve seen at Stratford. More ballet than battle, it at least had the virtue of drawing attention away from Cymbeline wielding her broadsword upstage.

Perhaps the main reason I was so disappointed in this Cymbeline is that I saw a far superior production in 2012, also at Stratford, also in the Tom Patterson, directed by Antoni Cimolino before he became artistic director. It was wonderful.

So it can be done. Let’s hope that as Jun gains more experience directing Shakespeare she will be more successful the next time she mounts this play she loves so much.

Footnote: Some readers may think they spotted a recurring typo in this review. Surely “Innogen” should be “Imogen,” the name by which the character is usually known. Not so. Apparently the good pedants at Oxford University pointed out that since the character is based on a character so named in the Historia Regum Britanniae, the Imogen spelling was an obvious mistake by typesetters in early texts. Why they changed it I can’t say. People just liked it better that way?

In any event, the Festival has chosen to follow Oxford’s lead and who am I to argue?

Cymbeline continues at the Tom Patterson Theatre through September 28, 2024. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Stratford Festival website.

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