The downside of reading and seeing lots of Shakespeare is that only rarely does one get to experience a play fresh. Thus, I was especially excited to attend the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s current production of Cymbeline, one of the last plays Shakespeare wrote and among the least frequently performed.
Broadly, Cymbeline is the tale of a legendary king of Britain, who in his old age finds himself fighting several battles simultaneously—both at home, when his previously devoted daughter, Imogen, spurns his preferred suitor to marry a commoner, and abroad, when he stops paying Britain’s enforced tribute to Rome. Analyzed more closely, however, the play becomes surprisingly difficult to characterize. Most anthologies list Cymbeline with other mature Shakespearean works such as The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest, dramas of redemption and renewal that many scholars, for lack of a better term, have labeled romances. (The CSC bills its production a “romantic adventure.”) Yet the First Folio, in which Cymbeline was originally published in 1623, lumps the play in with the tragedies.
Certainly Cymbeline contains elements of both genres, but what it really seems to be is a mashing together of Shakespeare’s greatest hits. There is the aging monarch, blind to his daughter’s true worth, as in King Lear. There is an Italian soldier who convinces a newly married husband that his faithful wife is an adulteress, as in Othello. Noblemen banished to the wilderness realize the virtues of simple living, shades of As You Like It. A plot twist in which the sleeping heroine is mistaken for dead recalls Romeo and Juliet. On top of these parallels, Shakespeare layers devices borrowed from fairy tales (a wicked stepmother) and the ancients (a literal deus ex machina, though this sequence is cut from the CSC production).
The crucial question for any director of Cymbeline, then, is how to tie so many disparate strands into a coherent whole. Unfortunately for the CSC, director Ian Gallanar seems to have begun with the assumption that Cymbeline is a very serious piece of theatre. My own impression, after spending nearly three hours watching Gallanar’s solemn cast struggle to invest the illogical plot with logic and their foolish characters with gravitas, is that Cymbeline is one of the silliest plays Shakespeare ever wrote—the final scene alone must contain a dozen reverses and improbable revelations.
Although several cast members seem to recognize the absurdity of the situation (notably Jill Giles and James Jager), for the most part the actors strip their performances of irony, and the result is the production walks an increasingly unsteady line between melodrama and farce. Perhaps the fault lies ultimately with Shakespeare, who mixed the ingredients together in the first place … yet it’s difficult for me to accept that such an accomplished writer would have intended his audience to take these characters as anything more than cartoons, parodies of greatness rather than the thing itself.
Another factor that undermines the production is Gallanar’s decision to double-cast each role; the actors don’t know which part they’re going to play until immediately before each performance. (The program and press materials imply the audience will play a role in casting each show, but at the performance I attended—Friday, February 25—the actors’ fates hinged on the flip of a coin.) Perhaps the burden of learning and rehearsing two roles had nothing to do with the number of flubbed lines and hesitant beats I observed—uncharacteristic of a Chesapeake Shakespeare production—but I suspect otherwise. Gallanar writes that his goal was to “create a wide variety of possibilities for actors speaking the words to each other … Will it change the dynamic between the play, the actors and the audience?” I wonder if this experiment might prove more successful with a less demanding play than Cymbeline, which for most people is already unfamiliar enough when performed “straight.”