Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Cara Ricketts as Innogen and Graham Abbey as Posthumus in the 2012 production of Cymbeline at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

It’s doubtful that Cymbeline has a single believable situation.  A few examples: right off the bat we meet a King who’s angry — why would any good father be angry? — with his daughter Innogen for marrying his Posthumus, a manly paragon of virtue, instead of his stepson Cloten, a drunken lout. In the middle of the play, Innogen wakes up to find herself in the mountains of western England — what were the chances? — lying next to the beheaded body of her stepbrother.

And at the play’s end, the Queen makes a death-bed confession to Doctor Cornelius that she never loved the King, was always repulsed by his body, and married him only for his position. Anyone with a shred of discretion would keep such a revelation to himself, but Cornelius rushes to blab it to the King, word for word. (Cymbeline tells everyone he never had a hint that his wife felt that way about him — who could be so oblivious?)

Geraint Wyn Davies plays Cymbeline, King of Britain

Not just the play’s plot elements, but its themes as well are incoherent.  In the final scene, Cymbeline (Geraint Wyn Davis) announces that Britain will keep paying tribute to Rome (3,000 pounds per year) even though he had just fought and won a war against the Romans over the very issue of tribute.  Not paying tribute had been a matter of principle, patriotism, and pride. As Cloten (Mike Shara) had said,

. . . Why tribute? why should we pay tribute? If Caesar can hide the sun from us with a blanket, or put the moon in his pocket, we will pay him tribute for light; else, sir, no more tribute, pray you now.

(Act III, Scene 1). Cymbeline himself was done with paying tribute:

You must know,
Till the injurious Romans did extort
This tribute from us, we were free:
Caesar’s ambition,
Which swell’d so much that it did almost stretch
The sides o’ the world, against all colour here
Did put the yoke upon ‘s; which to shake off
Becomes a warlike people, whom we reckon
Ourselves to be.

(Act III, Scene 1). Yet tribute is to be paid anyway. It’s as if George Washington, after accepting Cornwallis’s surrender and winning independence for the American colonies, had announced that the United States would go back to paying the tea tax.

The story of Cymbeline is as complicated as it is incredible. Till earlier this year, I’d made several abortive attempts to read it; I kept getting lost in the plot and the multiplicity of characters.  Finally, last winter, facing the prospect of actually seeing the play this spring, I made another essay and found smooth sailing.

This year’s production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival shows that this relatively obscure Shakespeare play is a good tale that makes for a highly satisfying three hours of theater. There are two main storylines and several lesser ones. The first main plot deals with the efforts of Cymbeline, King of Britain (Geraint Wyn Davies) to separate his daughter Innogen (Cara Ricketts) from her new husband, who is also the King’s foster son, Posthumus Leonatus (Graham Abbey). (Confusingly, Shakespeare’s characters sometimes call him “Posthumus” and sometimes “Leonatus.”) Banished by Cymbeline, Posthumus goes to Italy (these are the days of the Roman Empire, with Caesar Augustus as Emperor). Innogen eventually leaves home, disguised as a young man, with the hope of reuniting with her husband.

Tom McCamus

Meanwhile, at a dinner in Italy (this is the second main storyline), where all the men are bragging about their women the way Don Quixote bragged about Dulcinea, Posthumus meets a smooth-talking blackguard who offers to bet that Innogen is not so chaste that he, Iachimo (Tom McCamus), cannot seduce her. Astonishingly, Posthumus not only agrees to the bet, but even gives Iachimo a letter of introduction to his father-in-law. After Iachimo returns to Italy and tricks Posthumus into thinking he’d succeeded in bedding Innogen, Posthumus dispatches his loyal servant Pisanio (Brian Tree) to take the supposedly unfaithful Innogen out into the wilderness and put her to the knife. Posthumus is soon overwhelmed with remorse, believing himself a murderer. In fact, Innogen is still alive.

We learn from Posthumus later in the play that Innogen had for some reason persuaded him to put off consummating their marriage. The playwright is thus asking his audience to believe that Posthumus would have agreed to let Iachimo take a shot at “firsties” with Innogen! However far-fetched the proposition, it lets the audience ponder the contrast between the “purity” of Posthumus’s love for Innogen with the brutishness of the two other men in the play who want her, Iachimo and Cloten (who brags to his friends that when he finds Innogen, he’ll rape her, then kill her).  Shakespeare is not for the squeamish.

My wife, who isn’t a play-reader, told me she found this show unusually easy to follow. The reason, I am sure, is that director Antoni Cimolino had faith in the play that the Bard wrote and didn’t feel bound to tinker with the complicated story or make more or less of it than the text warranted. Mr. Cimolino’s only interpolation is a striking scene at the very beginning of the play that shows Cymbeline dreaming in bed. It’s a nod to the improbability of the play’s twists and turns, which are not unlike the incongruities of our dreams, in which people often behave irrationally and illogically.

Cymbeline has a large cast, but in this production even minor characters like the Roman general Lucius (Nigel Bennett), the fugitive warrior Belarius (John Vickery), and the court doctor, Cornelius (Peter Hutt) project distinctive, complex personalities. I enjoyed all three actors immensely. When I read the play, I didn’t quite grasp that whoever plays Posthumus has the romantic lead; Graham Abbey, a good-looking chap whose physique is positively ripped, nails the part (and set my wife’s heart a-flutter). Each of these actors, not to mention Yanna McIntosh as the Queen, Geraint Wyn Davis as Cymbeline, and Brian Tree as Pisanio, are masters of the difficult art of making Shakespeare’s 400-year-old language immediately accessible.

The finest performance, to my mind, is that of Tom McCamus as the smarmy Iachimo, the Roman who makes a sport of assaulting the virtue of another man’s wife. The dinner party scene in which Iachimo prevails on Posthumus to wager on his wife’s virtue is a highlight of the show. And at our performance, the audience collectively held its breath during the erotically charged, dream-like scene in which Iachimo rises out of hiding in Innogen’s bedroom, steals a clasp from the sleeping woman, and steals a look at her person for an identifying birthmark that would convince Posthumus that Iachimo had, in fact, been intimate with Innogen.

The only performance that did not seem fully satisfactory – why, if I have a reservation about a play at Stratford, is it usually about a younger performer? – was that of Cara Ricketts as Innogen. Ms. Ricketts delivers her lines expressively and audibly, but she delivers them all at the same intense emotional level, like a pianist who plays every phrase of a Beethoven sonata agitato or appassionato.  There were scenes in which dolce or gracioso was called for.

Thanks to my friend Shelly Jansen, who has written a thoughtful doctoral dissertation on the subject, I am now aware that when Innogen finally comes back to Posthumus, she does so as a revenant, a literary type that Dr. Jansen describes as a “spectral being” returned from a kind of death, literal or symbolic. When a character like Innogen is in a revenant state, forgiveness and reconciliation can place — and in all of Shakespeare there is no “group hug” reconciliation scene quite like the one at the end of Cymbeline. Other notable revenants include Hermione, in A Winter’s Tale, and Alcestis, the title character in the play of Euripedes.

Dr. Jansen’s thesis, written last year as part of her Ph. D. work at SUNY Binghamton, is entitled For-Giving: The Economy of the Revenant. The title of every doctoral thesis must include a colon.

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Julius Caesar at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival (a review)

Julius Caesar

The historical Julius Caesar

Julius Caesar is close to the top of the list of our favorite Shakespeare plays, but we’d never seen it performed until last weekend. The show at the Stratford Festival was tight, tense, and immensely satisfying, and we saw more in the characters of Brutus, Cassius, and Caesar than we ever knew was there.

We suppose there’s no danger of giving away the plot. The folks at Stratford evidently think people know the story, too; they left the usual plot summary out of the program. (We renew our complaint that the cost-cutters at Stratford are printing this year’s programs on cheap paper stock in an odd-sized (8 1/2 by 10 3/4) format that doesn’t fit our collection of programs.)

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Julius Caesar is one of the plays reflected by relief sculptures along the outside of the Folger Shakespeare Library, in Washington, D.C.

So to review, here’s the story. Around 40 B.C., Julius Caesar (Geraint Wyn Davies) has defeated his rival Pompey and has become virtual dictator of Rome. Jealous of Caesar, a number of Roman senators, led by Cassius (Tom Rooney), are plotting regime change. The conspirators realize, however, that without the support of the widely respected, high-minded Brutus (Ben Carlson), they are sure to be villified for taking Caesar down. Cassius persuades Brutus that, for the good of Rome, Caesar must die.

Julius Caesar

If Julius Caesar (Geraint Wyn Davis, center) had only read the letter being offered to him, he would have learned of the plot against his life.

On the Ides of March, Cassius, Brutus, and other Roman senators stab Caesar to death. Against the advice of Cassius, Brutus unwisely permits Caesar’s protege, Mark Antony (Jonathan Goad) to speak at Caesar’s funeral. Antony’s oration inflames the Romans against the conspirators. Mobs riot in the streets, and a civil war breaks out, in which Brutus and Cassius are uneasy allies. It all ends with a final battle at Phillippi.

Julius Caesar

Tom Rooney as Cassius, lean and hungry

As well as we know the play, we still felt the suspense keenly. Would Brutus yield to Cassius’s flattery and join the conspirators? Would Caesar be warned in time? Would the conspirators take Cassius’s advice and assassinate Mark Antony as well?

Domestic tension, as well: would Brutus ever tell his distraught wife Portia (Cara Ricketts) what’s going on?  Would Caesar heed the soothsayer and stay home on the Ides of March, as his wife Calpurnia pleads? Our own wife, who is not politically minded, thought the moral of the play was that husbands should listen to their wives.

We couldn’t have asked for a better cast for our first Julius Caesar on stage.   Geraint Wyn Davies has only a few scenes, but he is positively masterful as a ruler who has begun to believe that he is, indeed, god-like; no wonder Brutus could be persuaded that such a Caesar needed to be stopped. Best of all was Tom Rooney, with his bright-eyed intensity, steely sense of purpose, and ramrod stature. We knew without Caesar’s telling us that Cassius had “a lean and hungry look.”

Julius Caesar

Ben Carlson (Brutus) and Tom Rooney (Cassius)

Ben Carlson speaks the language of Shakespeare naturally, conversationally, and with effortless diction.  He and Rooney are well paired; the best parts of this Julius Caesar were Brutus’s scenes with Cassius.  The famous “quarrel” scene was just short of perfection (we dissected the quarrel in this recent post); it fell short only in that we felt that Brutus would, for maximum impact, have told Cassius to his face that he had “an itching palm.”  Instead, Carlson delivered the accusation in an offhanded manner as he poured a drink across the stage from Cassius.

Until last weekend, we never fully appreciated the emotional power of the “I am sick of many griefs” scene later in Act IV, Scene 3, in which we (and Cassius) learn of Portia’s suicide. Carlson, Rooney, and Kevin Blanchard (as Messala) play this scene with delicacy and humanity.

We were a little disappointed, however, in Jonathan Goad’s Mark Antony. We have seen Goad described as Stratford’s Johnny Depp, and indeed Goad’s what-me-worry? approach to the part reminded us of the hero of Pirates of the Caribbean. But it didn’t suit here, with the Roman empire at stake. Surely no confrontation in Julius Caesar should bristle more than the scene immediately after the death of Caesar, when Mark Antony comes face to face with the conspirators. But this Antony seemed more annoyed than angry with the conspirators; he hardly seemed to fear for his life. The scene slowed the play’s momentum.

And Antony’s “This was the noblest Roman of them all” monologue, after the death of Brutus, also fell flat.  It ends, of course, with Antony’s pronouncement on Brutus: “This was a man!”  The line needs to be delivered portentously, with equal emphasis on “this” and “man”.  But Goad accented only the first word: “THIS was a man.” It sounded more like a throwaway line.

Still, Goad delivered one of the play’s most thrilling moments with his “Friends, Romans, countrymen” speech. For this scene, director James MacDonald resourcefully embedded members of the cast in the audience, they made us feel part of the dangerous mob ourselves. The effect was electric. We had always assumed that Antony began his speech when the noise of the crowd died down. But Goad made us understand that “lend me your ears” (which he was obliged to shout over the din) was uttered in order to get the mob to shut up and listen.

From the supporting cast, we especially enjoyed the performances of Michael Spencer-Davis (as Casca), Cara Ricketts (as Portia), John Innes (as Cicero), and Dion Johnstone (as Octavius Caesar). Skye Brandon was superb as the unfortunate Cinna the poet, whose appearance and rapid demise (the finest cameo role of any play we can think of) seemed even more shocking than the assassination of Caesar himself.

The costumes and the props did not, frankly, make sense. The most that can be said for them is that we didn’t find them terribly distracting. In the first act, the Romans all wore snazzy suits and colorful ensembles (including some very short skirts) that vaguely reminded us of the Berlin street scenes, circa 1914, of Ernest Kirchner. In the second act, the officers in Mark Antony’s camp wore twentieth-century military uniforms; those in Cassius’s and Brutus’s camp wore baseball caps. And the soldiers all carried semi-automatic rifles. We missed the point of these “modern” touches.  We know exactly the time period in which this particular play takes place; it wasn’t the early 20th century.

Ben Carlson deserves credit for remaining unflustered under trying circumstances. During one of his early scenes, quite close to the stage, an extremely loud cellphone went off and played a long passage from Mozart’s C major piano sonata, K. 545. The owner had trouble getting it under control. Carlson never batted an eye as we all finally heard the belltones of a cellphone being turned off.

Other posts from Emsworth about shows in the Stratford Festival’s 2009 season:

Anton Chekhov’s wonderful The Three Sisters (see this post)

The musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (see this post)

Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair (see this post)

The folly of suggesting that Shakespeare should be “translated” for modern audiences (see this post)

The marvelous quarrels in Julius Caesar and The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (see this post)

What P. G. Wodehouse owes to Oscar Wilde (see this post)

The musical West Side Story (see this post)