January 17, 1998: Shakespeare, Cymbeline

Royal Shakespeare Company, Barbican Theatre

I think this theatre has become notorious for its poor acoustics. It positively eats consonants, with the result that you don’t really get more than fifty or sixty percent of what the actors are saying and have to fill in the rest by imagination or from memory.

Cymbeline may simply be one of those plays that is best revived only infrequently. This is the second production of it that we’ve seen inside of two months — the earlier one being by Hartford Stage (HS). Both productions adopt a kind of fantastic Orientalism, though in HS the expression of it is in shimmer­ing, multicolored silks, pillbox hats, and so on, whereas the RSC is spare, white tunics, à la japonisme, open fires in overturned shallow cylindrical black cones, beds and cushions on floors, and such. Each production embraced some idea of the exotic along with the fantastic; never mind that Cymbeline is King of Britain. Caesar’s emissaries, in the RSC production, wear flowing blood-red gowns; the swords of all are slightly curved and slender; they could be used equally well in some next production of The Arabian Nights or Invasion of the Tartars.

As for “concept,” the RSC designers seem to have taken inspiration from an aphorism spoken late in the play: “Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.” That is, there is a nautical metaphor, an image of  a gigantic sail, imposed on the entire course of proceedings. It fills the entire stage. In the opening sequence — always an embarrassment to a director (like the opening of A Winter’s Tale) who sees an introductory expository scene between 1 Gentleman and 2 Gentleman as inherently boring and therefore as something that must be dramatized — the great white cloth lies flat, covering almost the entire stage floor; on it are seated a soothsayer, his own portable smoking lamp before him, who tells us what we need to know to follow the action, and all the other characters of the play, who stand and identify themselves as their names are mentioned and even join in the narration. The cloth is then cleared and, almost miraculously, it rises on a batten and takes on the optimistic curve and fullness of a sail under full wind. And so we sail on into our story. The “sail” is in fact a wonderfully supple and flexible device; it even has a vertical slit in it to do duty, later in the play when Imogen has arrived in the vicinity of Milford Haven, as the cave where the banished Belarius has hidden and brought up to maturity the two sons of Cymbeline, Guidarius and Arviragus, whom he stole away in retribution for his banishment. The result is a swiftly moving action, with one point of egress set at the end of a long white path out into the auditorium itself. This had the effect of forcing the action out much closer to the audience than it might other­wise have come, and compensating for the inherent limitations of use of the sail-curtain.

On the one hand, I liked all this; it was visually spare yet rich, at the same time. On the other hand, I couldn’t finally figure out what the faux-Orientalism and its combination with the “sail on, sail on” metaphor really had to do with the play. Finally, it seemed a gratuitous attempt at a spurious originality — despite my discerning a germ of metaphorical inspiration from the idea that larger forces than human will and reason can effect outcomes that puny human effort only falters over.

And as for the acting — the heart and soul of a Shakespearean production — it was somewhat indifferent, I thought, ranging from the competent but unin­spired to the impassioned but undistinguished. Joanna McCallum had a fairly uniform sneer as the wicked, scheming Queen. Joanne Pearce as Imogen departed from the paragon of virtue dear to the heart of nineteenth-century actresses in favor of a boyish, impetuous, tousle-haired and overweight tomboy. Pearce is a very good actress, but she is too dangerously close to forty to be completely convincing in an ingénue role. Could she play Rosalind, or Viola, or Portia? That’s the role, and she isn’t any longer right for it, unless you are into a sort of post-modern anti-type casting not otherwise in evidence in this produc­tion — although the rapidly aging Iachimo, skillfully played by Paul Freeman, didn’t seem anything other than a somewhat ironic, unorthodox choice for a character who, in the script, seems to have all the impetuousness and ill-consid­ered judgment of a man in his early twenties, succumbing to a fit of testosteronic excess as he challenges Posthumous Leonatus to a dare over the question of his lady’s chastity. The most striking acting, in fact, came from Ewart James Walters, a tall, black actor with great tensile strength throughout his tall, angular body and blessed with a fine, resonant voice that commands attention whenever he opens his mouth, as Caius Lucius, Roman ambassador and later general, who also doubles as Jupiter in the vision scene later in the play.

We are of course seeing a cut version of the text. The RSC, unlike most comp­anies, does its audience the courtesy of identifying the edition used (here, the Arden) and explaining that about 1,000 lines have been cut. Even so, it plays a fraction over three hours, including one fifteen-minute interval. I came away feeling that the time had passed swiftly — the pace of the production was reasonably fast — but that I had remained curiously unmoved by the proceed­ings. It did not win me, somehow, in the way the earlier HS production did, despite HS’s often inferior and uneven acting and its smaller stage. In fact, given the cavernous stage of the Barbican and the comparably wide and deep stage of the Stratford house (home of the RSC), the first task of today’s director for the RSC (whether Adrian Noble, as here, or someone else) is to find a suitable way to fill the deep reaches of stage devoted to the national treasure. Minus the big white sail, this production could’ve been done on HS’s much smaller stage with no real changes. And yet, somehow, there had to be that big sail — and everything seemed to follow from that. What I mean to say is, when the director has, of necessity, to start with a great space to fill instead of with a great play to stage, the result can be much less than memorable.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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