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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 for a dramatic setup whose demerits were summed up in Dr. Johnson’s curt dismissal:

To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.

In this mix of disparate elements, flung together with what could pass for disdainful carelessness—ancient Britain and Renaissance Italy, a wicked stepmother out of a fairy tale, and a divine vision out of Roman mythology—anachronism and coincidence are operating principles. What elsewhere in Shakespeare is seamlessly fused here seems almost deliberately separated out; artifice is exposed as if to foster incredulity.

Quite aside from his dramatic premises, Shakespeare’s execution has been faulted: the play has been variously deemed trivial, heavy-handed, digressive, prolix; its language as uneven, and sometimes as downright awkward, as its actions are banal and implausible. The characters have been described as puppets, weak, unstable, or barely developed, their most expressive moments no more than flattened echoes of earlier works. Notoriously, the play sets up as hero one Posthumus Leonatus, Imogen’s low- born husband, whose resplendent virtues are proclaimed at ornate length in the opening scene, but who after falling from grace with stunning speed proceeds to disappear for most of the duration. Resurfacing in Act Five more or less with his tail between his legs, he passively receives an elaborate vision of Jupiter (a pageant whose merits, either literary or dramatic, have also been viewed with extreme skepticism).

If Shakespeare washes his hands of characterization and embraces the mechanics of a puppet show, might it be a matter of momentarily diminished capacity, of tired indifference to the springs of motive? Harley Granville-Barker, in his brilliant preface to a play he finds it impossible to completely admire,1 detects “a certain leisured weariness of mind,” and hypothesizes that the playwright, newly retired to Stratford, might have been slowing down a bit. Perhaps, it has been surmised, Shakespeare was at pains to demonstrate his continuing viability in a rapidly changing marketplace? Did he make an appeal to changing tastes, whipping up a novel sort of comical-melodramatic masque of which he had not quite gotten the hang?

Yet however casually imagined the plot’s devices, its feints and disguises, faked letters and providential encounters—however prone its characters to explanations after the fact, or sudden recollections of things that they should have brought up earlier—I am unable, along with many readers, to doubt that the play’s effects are intentional, and that the mystery is not whether but why Shakespeare planned it that way. As G. Wilson Knight, an ardent twentieth-century partisan, remarked: “Even its anachronisms appear to be planned.”2

The apparent flaws and unresolved difficulties may serve to make those of us who love the play somewhat protective of it, more than is usually required for a writer who rarely calls for special pleading. If Cymbeline differs radically from the rest of the oeuvre, it requires a certain faith to affirm that this was no aberration but a purposeful reversal of Shakespeare’s own habits, rigorous, almost brutally forceful, and still capable of astonishing.

The RSC production at least makes it clear that Cymbeline is a singular masterpiece of stagecraft, whose theatrical pleasures are distinct from other Shakespearean plays. The disjunctions and contradictions of the text, far from interfering with its dramatic life, create its jagged rhythms, its air of brimming over with the excess of its own situations. As the audience files in, extras in Druidic white robes are already sprawled around a wok-like brazier, from which the smell of incense rises. At the back there is a vague cloudy-blue backdrop. We are far from any sense of location and indeed, with the white robes and the incense, could be in the midst of some New Age commune affecting extraterrestrial fashions. (The incense, which lingers throughout the performance, distractingly prolongs that impression.) At length one among their number begins to speak, not the words with which Shakespeare opened the play, but a newly crafted line of exposition: “There was a king named Cymbeline…” The dialogue of the original opening has been reworked to provide a rundown of the status quo while doing away with the two Gentlemen (never seen again) who in Shakespeare’s version provide the information. As each character is referred to, he stands, throws off his robe, and makes an introductory flourish. However ingenious this may be as a device for straightening out the dramatis personae right from the start, my heart sank a little at the tone of cozy good humor. To get the upper hand of the material by kidding it would be a dangerous move, even (or especially) when the material appears to kid itself. Was this to be a comic opera Cymbeline, under the sign of the knowing wink?

Like anyone who has spent a long time thinking about an unacted play, I was initially reluctant to sacrifice a familiar text, and couldn’t help regretting what was lost in reframing that prologue: the two anonymous Gentlemen, whispering commentators on the spectacle of misused power, who establish the sense of an actual polity suffused with an atmosphere of public mistrust. Cymbeline’s court may have about it an air of almost comical dissolution, but such weakness carries with it a reminder of real enough dangers. That the King’s children were stolen away becomes an occasion to gripe about inefficiency and inadequate security: “That a king’s children should be so convey’d,/So slackly guarded, and the search so slow/That could not trace them!” It is but the earliest indication that this fantasy kingdom is curiously defined by grievances and insufficiencies.

The risk of overdoing the laughs is that once an audience is encouraged to find the very notion of abducted princes and wicked stepmothers uproarious, it will be difficult to get them to take much of anything that goes on very seriously. How are they to react when the king of the gods descends with something resembling a menu from a high-class restaurant? Then again, it may be that contemporary audiences take few artistic effects more seriously than the unforced laugh; it is a sort of certification that they are watching something real. The recent revival in London and New York of Ionesco’s The Chairs with Richard Briers and Geraldine McEwan made powerful use of music-hall style, eliciting gales of laughter while inching the audience toward a bleakness that might otherwise have remained an inert concept.

In Cymbeline it isn’t a matter of progression. The comic does not give way gradually to the somber; there is rather a constant careening in and out, following a law of maximum contrast at maximum speed. What is required is a decisive registration of these shifts, an acknowledgment of how radically we are asked to change gear at each turn, and here the RSC manages quite well. A single excessive pratfall nearly breaks the rhythm of the frenetic last scene, already—with its piling up of breathless last-minute revelations—close enough in form to the finale of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta not to need any underscoring of the point.

Once the robes are off, we discover that Adrian Noble has adopted the accoutrements of an imaginary Orient, a mélange of gestures and visual cues from kabuki and Chinese opera and Javanese shadow play. Nothing remotely Asian is proposed; the audience is merely given notice that the play occurs within the same purely theatrical realm as, say, Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges or Britten’s The Prince of the Pagodas (or even, at moments, The Mikado). A room in the palace, a road in the forest, a jail cell: all are made from the same interchangeable elements, with a billowing white canopy serving alternatively as wall or carpet, curtain or clearing or cave mouth. A walkway extending into the audience mimics the hanamichi of kabuki, forming a path along which servants, soldiers, courtiers, and prisoners variously march, amble, or race. There is a good deal of racing; the velocity of the play’s narrative development—the startling rapidity with which situations reverse themselves or personalities turn inside out—is conveyed first of all by a literal speeding up of exits and entrances.

  1. 1

    Harley Granville Barker, Preface to Cymbeline (London: Heinemann, 1995), p. 30.

  2. 2

    G. Wilson Knight, The Crown of Life (Oxford University Press, 1947), p. 129.

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