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.

Richard III at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival

Seana McKenna as Richard, Duke of Gloucester

(May 30, 2011) Don’t shy away from seeing Richard III at the Stratford Festival this year for fear that having a woman play the lead role will just be a novelty. Seana McKenna is as fine a Richard as you’ll ever see, a commanding, sometimes terrible presence. This play can seem disjointed, but this production makes it all into a compelling narrative.

Richard III is set in the 1480s, only a little over a hundred years before the play was first presented. Its hero, Richard, Duke of Gloucester bitterly resents everyone around him: his brother King Edward; Elizabeth, the Queen; his other brother Clarence, who stands ahead of him in line for the throne of England; and anyone else who is able to enjoy life the way his own deformed self cannot.

Richard makes up for his defects with cunning, an talent for dissembling, and a preternatural ability to get others to do his bidding.  His undoing is his paranoia and an ever-growing appetite for killing. As Richard, Seana McKenna delivers her lines with clarity, nuance, and depth of meaning, and her Richard is an intelligent, driven personality, a master manipulator with a special relish for irony. This role demonstrates once again why she ranks among the very best classical actors you’re likely ever to see on any stage.

Gareth Potter, as Richmond, dispatches Seana McKenna, as Richard III

There is very little in Ms. McKenna’s appearance to remind the audience that she is a woman. In a loose-fitting coat that hides her figure, makeup that hides her feminine features, and a wig with a bald spot on top, Ms. McKenna looks every bit a man (though not a very tall one). She’s even a credible sword-fighter. Her Richard also has the character’s traditional hunched shoulder and limp (political correctness be damned). Only her voice betrays her, but she exploits its low range well enough to convince audiences that Richard was merely a man with a high voice.

Indeed, it struck us that director Miles Potter purposely chose to downplay the circumstance that a woman was playing Richard.  The casting could, of course, have suggested any number of offbeat interpretations of the character, like the flamboyantly gay Richard that Richard Dreyfuss was called on to play in the movie comedy The Goodbye Girl. But only sparing notice is given to the actor’s gender. At two or three points, the script refers specifically to womanly qualities (as when Buckingham flatters Richard by referring to his “tenderness of heart/And gentle, kind, effeminate remorse” (Act III, Scene 6)); the actors emphasize the key words just enough to convey to the audience the inside joke. At any rate, Ms. McKenna plays Richard as a man, and not even a womanish man. As one might expect from a royal male, her Richard is an effortlessly natural commander of men and women alike. Overall, this was a very traditional Richard III, without transporting the play to a different time period or country, and without unconventional interpretations of characters or scenes — all of which we applaud. The director concentrated on doing Richard III well rather than doing it differently.

True, hearing Richard’s treble voice, our fancy couldn’t help speculating that a hormonal deficiency may have contributed to Richard’s shocking misogyny.  When he confesses to the audience in his opening speech that he wants “love’s majesty/To strut before a wanton ambling nymph” (Act I, Scene 1), is he telling us that his physical deformity extended to his sexual organs?  Did Richard hate women all the more because he was impotent?  Might this account for Richard’s singular determination to confuse, subjugate, humiliate, and drive Lady Anne (Bethany Jillard) to an early grave — Lady Anne, who “never yet one hour in his bed . . . enjoy’d the golden dew of sleep” (Act IV, Scene 1).

There are a lot of characters in Richard III, and although we’ve read the play several times, we still have trouble keeping track of the complicated fourteenth-century family trees of the House of York (Richard’s people) and the House of Lancaster (Richmond’s people). It says something for Shakespeare’s audiences that the playwright could assume that they would know who all these fifteenth-century personages were. Fortunately, one need not know much of it to get the gist of the play. Its interest doesn’t depend on placing the characters in the right faction, but lies instead in the emotional trajectory of Richard’s downfall.

Ms. McKenna is supported by a strong cast, including a remarkable trio of veteran Stratford Festival actresses: Martha Henry as the vindictive Queen Margaret, Roberta Maxwell as Richard’s mother, the Duchess of York, and Yanna McIntosh as the highly political wife of King Edward. We especially enjoyed Nigel Bennett as the badly miscalculating Hastings and Wayne Best as the disappointed Duke of Buckingham. Not so satisfactory, though, was Bethany Jillard’s Lady Anne, who delivered her lines loudly and clearly but with little expression.

When the powers at the Stratford Festival put Richard III in the Tom Patterson Theatre, they may have been afraid that one of Shakespeare’s “history” plays wouldn’t attract enough patrons to fill one of the larger theatres. We think they miscalculated, because this show is bound to have full houses every night by the end of the season, just from word of mouth, as A Winter’s Tale did in 2010. (There were only a handful of empty seats at the early preview performance we saw.) At any rate, we were glad to see Richard III in the Tom Patterson, because we still think there’s no better venue anywhere for Shakespeare.

For ourselves, we wish the history plays were performed more often at Stratford. It’s been too long since Richard II, Henry IV Part 2, and Henry V were done. We have no inside information, but we fearlessly predict that Henry V will be on the Stratford Festival’s menu for 2012, that it will be in the Festival Theatre, and that Ben Carlson will be addressing the troops on St. Crispin’s Day. [Update (6-6-11): We were right: The Stratford Festival announced its 2012 season over the weekend, and they will indeed be doing Henry V in the Festival Theatre. Casting isn’t set yet.] [Further update (11-1-11): We were wrong: Aaron Krohn will play the title role. Carlson will play Fluellen.]

This is the second time we’ve seen a major Shakespearean male character played by a woman; a few years ago another of our favorite actresses, Kelli Fox, who will appear in The Misanthrope at the Stratford Festival later this year, played Hamlet very ably in a production at Geva Theatre here in Rochester, New York several years ago. On this blog Emsworth has carped from time to time about how “nontraditional” casting can distract and detract from a play (here’s what we said about it in connection with the Shaw Festival’s current production of Shaw’s Candida). But ordinarily, when it’s done with Shakespeare, we’re not likely to care one way or the other. Shakespeare’s world was indeed multi-racial, as Othello and The Merchant of Venice show. And we know that in Elizabethan times the female roles were played by men; it’s not much of a stretch for a male role to be played by a woman.