Child’s Play

Cymbeline of Music, June 3-6, and at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington, D.C., June 23-July 5, 1998

a play by William Shakespeare, directed by Adrian Noble. performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Brooklyn Academy

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Cymbeline (which following an engagement at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is now playing at the Kennedy Center in Washington) vindicates the stageworthiness of what has come to be one of Shakespeare’s least performed plays. Once a favorite of the playhouses, frequently and sometimes lavishly revived as a vehicle for stars from Mrs. Siddons to Ellen Terry, Cymbeline nowadays seems to be remembered chiefly for its two songs “Hark, hark the lark” and “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” and for its much-admired heroine, the princess Imogen. Among critics, whether the play is really much good has remained an open question, tactfully implied by such terms as “experiment” and “transitional work.” Productions have been rare enough to suggest that Shakespeare might, this once, have fumbled in realizing his intentions.

The RSC production, directed by Adrian Noble, refutes any notion that Cymbeline is unplayable, without in any way exhausting our possible responses to this most enigmatic Shakespearean work. There will soon be an opportunity for further response: in an unlooked-for bounty, another production, directed by Andrei Serban, will play in Central Park later this summer. These revivals, together with another this winter at Princeton, directed by Mark Lamos, suggest that Cymbeline may be undergoing the sort of rebirth supposedly characteristic of Shakespeare’s late romances. But experiencing the play live does not alleviate the oddness that has always clung to it. In fact it seems odder than ever.

Cymbeline poses distinct perplexities to any director, even when the problem of its inordinate length (it runs some four hours uncut) has been dealt with, as here, by extensive, mainly imperceptible pruning. In the first place, what is it about? A Shakespeare play can generally be at least crudely blurbed in the manner of a TV Guide listing: A young man is led to suspect his stepfather of his father’s murder. Comical complications ensue when a brother and sister, identical twins, are shipwrecked in a strange country. An exiled duke with magical powers has an opportunity for vengeance when his enemies fall into his hands. An embittered army officer plots to wreck his commanding officer’s marriage.

When it comes to Cymbeline, any such attempt precipitates a scene-by-scene recapitulation: An aging ruler whose second wife prevails on him to marry his daughter by his first marriage to her son is enraged when she defies him by marrying an orphan of low rank who was raised in the palace because his father and elder siblings died heroically defending Britain against her Roman invaders, and who is after the marriage forced into exile in Italy, where he stays with an old friend of his father’s, at whose house—but I have forgotten to mention the princes abducted by a disgruntled retainer, and the unpaid tribute to Rome, and the poison prepared at the behest of the queen but transmuted without her knowledge into a harmless sleeping potion.

Any production must first establish some credibility …

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