Stage Door Review


Thursday, May 30, 2024


by William Shakespeare, directed by Esther Jun

Stratford Festival, Tom Patterson Theatre, Stratford

May 29-September 28, 2024

Pisanio: All other doubts, by time let them be cleared.

Fortune brings in some boats that are not steered. (Act 4, Scene 3)

The Stratford Festival’s latest production of Cymbeline is a great disappointment. One would like to see the lesser known works of Shakespeare well-staged to help lift them from undeserved obscurity. Alas, that is precisely what this newest staging will not do. Long-time Stratford patrons will know that Cymbeline can be an exciting and moving experience as shown by Robin Phillips’s production in 1986 and by Antoni Cimolino’s production in 2012. The present production suffers not because of the play itself but because the director has no understanding of it and far too many of the actors are unable to make sense of their lines.

In her Director’s Notes, Esther Jun says, Cymbeline is “a full-blown epic fantasy drama/comedy/tragedy/romance worthy of The Lord of the Rings”. Actually, the play’s genre is not so complicated or as trivial as that. As I have noted before, Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s late plays identified by famed Canadian critic Northrop Frye as “romances”, “a category that includes PericlesThe Winter’s Tale, The Tempest and The Two Noble Kinsmen. In these Shakespeare returned to an earlier form of storytelling much like the fairy-tale that goes beyond tragedy and comedy to include the miraculous. The themes include reconciliation, the healing power of time and the nature of storytelling itself.

Cymbeline is an excellent example since its plot allows Shakespeare to revisit elements of some of his best-known tragedies and to look at them from different perspective. Cymbeline, a legendary king of England living supposedly during the reign of Caesar Augustus (27BC-AD14), has had his two sons stolen from him not to be found. His one remaining child is Imogen, here called ‘Innogen’ as per the 1986 Oxford Edition of Shakespeare which claims that the spelling ‘Imogen’ arose as an error when the manuscripts were printed.

“Innogen, as we must call her now, has secretly married a commoner, Posthumus Leonatus, whom Cymbeline banishes from the kingdom. Posthumus goes to Rome, where he meets a cynical gentleman named Iachimo, who believes no woman can be faithful to her husband and claims he can go to England and come back with proof he has slept with Innogen. Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s second wife, Innogen’s evil stepmother, convinces Cymbeline not to pay tribute to Rome, thus bringing the two countries to war, and keeps urging her own son Cloten to woo Innogen as she plots to win the crown”.

The Queen’s very first lines underline the nature of the play: “No, be assured you shall not find me, daughter, / After the slander of most stepmothers, / Evil-eyed unto you”. The “slander” the Queen speaks of is the portrayal of stepmothers in so many fairy-tales (e.g. Cinderella). The irony is that the Queen actually is “evil-eyed” toward Innogen and thus is exactly like a fairy-tale stepmother. Director Esther Jun, apparently not realizing how important this is, has reimagined King Cymbeline as Queen Cymbeline and made what had been the King into a Duke and thus an evil stepfather, which, gender-biased or not, is not a fairy-tale trope.

Jun has the idea is to take the play’s introductory dialogue that supplies all the background of the characters away from Shakespeare’s two anonymous Gentlemen and give it to the Soothsayer and the god Jupiter. All the characters are present on stage while the Soothsayer explains the role of each to Jupiter. The flaw here, of course, is that Jupiter, worshipped by both the Britons and the Romans, would already know all this information and would not need it explained. Nevertheless, Jun’s staging at least allows us to link a face to a name.

In her Director’s Notes Jun says that Cymbeline is a story “worthy of The Lord of the Rings”. Designer Michelle Bohn has taken this rather too literally and has created costumes and wigs for the early Britons that look as if they have been filched directly from the wardrobe for the Elvish characters in that film trilogy. The Italians in Iachimo’s orbit she has clad in early 17th-centruy style and the Romans she has placed in typical centurion gear.

Set designer Echo Zhou makes the odd choice of giving the Britons a tall sacred tree that is dead with all its branches lopped off. Yet, at significant moments when someone touches it, it glows green through its bark. Despite this, the Britons’ symbol displayed on their flag is a leafy tree with all its branches. What all this iconography means is a mystery.

The confusion in symbolism reflects a general confusion in Jun’s direction. If she had looked at Shakespeare’s other romances, Jun would have realized that Shakespeare does not mingle comedy and tragedy within the same scene but keeps them separate. The most obvious case is The Tempest where the drunken Stephano-Trinculo scenes run a separate course from the court party scenes and the Prospero-Miranda scenes until the end. So it is in Cymbeline where the scenes centred on Cloten are the only comic scenes until we meet Posthumus’ humorous Jailer near the end.

Jun, however, tries to find comedy in scenes where there is none. Iachimo’s spying on Innogen sleeping in her bedroom should be one of one the more shocking scenes Shakespeare ever wrote. Yet, Jun seems to think that Iachimo’s entering and exiting into a trunk is funny rather than creepy. Worse, after Posthumus’ vision of four ghosts and Jupiter himself, she allows Jordin Hall as Posthumus to exclaim, “Wow” (not in Shakespeare), causing laughter and thus trivializing the event. Worst of all, Jun seems not to understand what the tone should be for the play’s final scene. Jun thinks that one person after another coming forward with new information about what has happened is meant to be amusing. Directors more familiar with Shakespeare’s romances know that the scene is meant to inspire wonder as individuals come together, each one adding a piece of their personal knowledge to others, until they create a picture of a past that has affected them all. A community is built and healed by all people sharing in telling a story.

Just as Jun seems to have no firm grasp of the tone of the play from moment to moment, so she also seems to have no idea how the actors should interpret their roles. As a result, the actors apparently have to fend for themselves. Thus, the actors with the greatest experience in Shakespeare do well. Those with little experience do not.

Prime among those who do well is Lucy Peacock in the gender-swapped title role. Those familiar with the play know that the role of the evil Queen is a juicier role than that of the King, who is in thrall to the Queen’s machinations until near the end. One wonders why Jun did not leave the roles as they are in Shakespeare so that Peacock could play that Queen. Nevertheless, Peacock with her ability to speak Shakespearean verse so naturally and forcefully makes the most of all of Cymbeline’s appearances and makes Cymbeline’s reconciliation with Innogen and Posthumus the emotional highlight of the evening.

In another gender-swapped role, that of Pisanio, Innogen’s faithful servant, Irene Poole is outstanding in drawing our sympathy for someone who is caught between duty to her master Posthumus and loyalty to Innogen. In this way, Poole makes us feel that Pisanio is the most fully-rounded character in the play.

Along Poole and Peacock, the performance of Jonathan Goad is vital to maintaining the correct level of gravitas in the play. As Belarius, Goad always makes us aware that Belarius is an unjustly exiled courtier who has not just accommodated himself to a life in nature but has found joy in it. Just when Jun’s desire to make the final recognition scene inappropriately comic is about to succeed, Goad speaks so movingly about Belarius’ past and his care for Cymbeline’s sons that he banishes the frivolous mood that was about to take over and single-handedly conjures up the aura of the miraculous that the scene is meant to inspire.

Tyrone Savage, now in his ninth season at Stratford, has become an excellent speaker of Shakespearean verse. He makes Iachimo into one of Shakespeare’s most devious villains, and, but for the humour Jun encourages, his bedroom scene could have been thoroughly chilling. What is perhaps more difficult, Savage makes Iachimo’s growing regret for his underhand actions fully believable.

Rick Roberts takes on the role originally given to the Queen, the evil step-mother of fable, who is now called the “Duke”. Actor such as Martha Henry and Yanna McIntosh have relished the chance to play one of the few roles in Shakespeare for a mature woman who is a malign controlling force behind the scenes. Roberts simply is unable to conjure up a menacing enough persona to seem like the embodiment of evil in the play.

Three of the most important characters are played by actor who have trouble speaking verse and problems with voice and breath control. Allison Edwards-Crewe has played only two major Shakespearean roles at Stratford over the past three seasons. Her voice can be low and controlled as it is over most of Act 2 in the play. But placed under pressure it can become hoarse and she tends to shout rather than project. In Cymbeline she often takes breaths where there no pause is meant. This makes many of Innogen’s speeches indecipherable.

This is Jordin Hall’s sixth season at Stratford and still he shouts. To simulate emotion he shouts out many of Posthumus’ most important speeches which only renders them unclear and ineffective.

Christopher Allen has given many fine performances mostly in modern plays. Cloten is one of only two comic characters in Cymbeline (the other being the Jailer), but Allen plays him so over the top with much shouting and even screaming that he become a cartoon rather than a real person. The only gesture he gives Cloten is constantly brushing a forelock off his forehead which tends to give Cloten such an effeminate air it’s hard to believe the character has any interest in Innogen.

Esther Jun is now in her sixth season at Stratford, but this is her first time ever directing Shakespeare. It is very unfair for Jun to be assigned such a difficult play as Cymbeline for her first Shakespeare. It has the most complex plot of the romances and Shakespeare’s verse in the romances in much more compact and knotty than it is in his earlier plays. A director of the romances really should have strong experience in directing Shakespeare’s early plays before essaying his often self-reflexive later works.

Four main actors who are fluent enough in Shakespeare’s verse and cognizant enough of the goals of Shakespeare’s romance are not enough to carry the entire play. Audiences will likely think it is the fault of the play rather than the production that his Cymbeline does not work. That would be a great pity because when Cymbeline is treated with the care it requires it can be a marvellous experience. Let’s hope the play comes around sooner than another twelve years and that it will then be granted a director and cast experienced enough in Shakespeare to bring out the play’s manifold virtues.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Marcus Nance as Jupiter (centre) with members of the company; Lucy Peacock as Cymbeline; Allison Edwards-Crewe as Innogen and Jordin Hall as Posthumus; Tyrone Savage as Iachimo; Jonathan Goad as Belarus. © 2024 David Hou.

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