A four hour drive through Ontario nothingness, almost $200 for tickets alone, barely suppressed rage at inane audience comments (it boggles the mind how much damage Harold Bloom has done to Shakespeare): totally worth it for Elektra. For Cymbeline, not so much.
Robert Cushman and Kelly Nestruck have written nicely detailed reviews that capture much of what’s interesting about Elektra. Like them, I found the combination of various kinds of verse speaking and singing fascinating and enormously intriguing, and I admired much of the physical work. The lighting design was also extremely effective, using various kinds of shadow play to suggest settings and locations; the lights in this production continued to make an impression when they weren’t even on — as the stage slowly sinks into darkness at the end, light after light being turned off, the clicking sound of the cooling metal (or was it the gels?) heightened the sense of an ending as Argos descends into silence.
That’s not to say that there weren’t things that bothered me a little. Sophocles’s version of the Electra story is a strange sort of tragedy to begin with: Orestes just kills Clytemnestra and Aegisthus, and that, well, is that. Aegisthus is such a nonentity that it’s hard to feel one way or the other about his death, so much turns on how extreme or satisfying the murder of Clytemnestra appears. In this version, the queen, played by Seana McKenna, doesn’t exactly make it difficult for us (or at least for me) to applaud Electra’s and Orestes’ actions — she’s so obviously one of the bad people that it may still be technically “wrong” to kill her, but it’s hard to feel particularly sorry for her. Similarly, Electra herself, while obsessed, isn’t portrayed with the kind of over-the-top near-psychotic intensity by Yanna McIntosh that might make us question the rationality of her desires for revenge. As a consequence, the chorus seems less like a force of reason than like a force of conformism. None of these are illegitimate or “bad” interpretative choices, but they amount to a less emotionally gripping show than I had expected. Then again, director Thomas Moschopoulos emphasizes the role of tragedies as a forum for thought in ancient Greece, an approach that obviously favours rationality over emotion — so what the production is doing is entirely in keeping with his commitment to a reading indebted to the play’s historical origins.
My other regret: that the stage never actually looked like this:
I realize that that would have been a tough set to act in/on, but the degree to which those broken urns did not become a feature was a bit disappointing. Two or three broken pots strewn around a very long stage don’t signify much of anything. And if I really wanted to nitpick, I’d note that the musical theatre inflections of at least one of the chorus members added a slightly odd and ill-fitting tonal quality to the choral chants that I found grating. But that’s a nit one doesn’t have to pick.
On the whole, what was most exciting for me, because it’s oh-so-rare in these parts, was the fact that the show had a clear directorial vision and angle; it had developed a rigorous formal approach; and it was doing something with ancient material that was both historically informed and yet totally, radically new (at least to me, and I would imagine actually new in English). The set, the costumes, the movement work — none of this was window dressing, thrown in for the sake of production values or to demonstrate that the director had something to do with what wound up on stage, but everything was clearly worked through, aesthetically and conceptually. Text and performance, visual and aural effects went hand in hand, creating not an effort to “serve Sophocles” or “do the play justice,” or some other project in which any production of a play is always secondary to the script, but a work that stood on its own, guided by a coherent set of artistic and interpretative principles and decisions. This is how classics should be done.
* * *
Cymbeline, on the other hand, is how classics are done when they’re done competently and in a way that’s supposed to “serve” the play. There’s nothing offensive about the production, directed by incoming Artistic Director Antoni Cimolino. It’s not horrendously boring. It’s not terribly acted (though I have to say that McIntosh’s Elektra is from a different universe than her Queen — the former has her inhabiting her character’s body and mind almost seamlessly, whereas her Shakespeare performance seemed to me quite affected and strangely stagey). But I could not discern a clear directorial angle or approach, and its aesthetics are all over the place.
In many ways, it’s a production that revels in traditional (as opposed to McAnuffian) Stratford production values: lots of costumes, mainly “Elizabethan;” lots of nice-looking props. And there’s the eagle Jupiter rides on (if you don’t know the play, look it up). But none of it means anything. We get a gorgeous banquet table — that goes almost entirely unused, understandably, since all the action in the scene in which it appears takes place between two actors who aren’t eating. Every scene change is accompanied by a flurry of activity as new tables, desks, chairs, stools, and chandeliers are rushed on and off stage, to little or no effect. Unsurprisingly, things work much better when the stage is empty — when the actors are finally free to move, free to act for an audience undistracted by all the knick knacks on display. But I suppose all that stuff needs to be there to justify ticket prices.
The costumes are similarly ineffective. Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s strangest plays in terms of its historiography: it seems to be set simultaneously in his own time and in ancient Britain, and this production just adopts that odd jumble of periods. Thus, we get a court dressed predominantly in quasi-Elizabethan outfits, with a few strange doublet-and-kilt combos thrown in — as well as Romans in full-on Gladiator-style uniforms and rural Welshmen in sackcloth. Or something. The weirdest costume change is Iachimo’s: he goes from Italian Renaissance fop to Roman soldier, from doublet and hose and cloak to Julius Caesar. One could say that that’s just being faithful to the play and its own screwed-up chronology. But one would be quite wrong. Because what Shakespeare mixes up is his own time and ancient Europe; what this production mixes up is one period hundreds of years removed from us and another that’s even more removed from us. What would have made sense would have been a neutrally costumed, or even modern dress production which suddenly jerks back to ancient Rome — that, too, would have been strange, but strange in a way that replicates the play’s weirdness. But modern dress isn’t expensive-looking enough, I suppose. Need those enormous skirts swishing around or it isn’t Shakespeare.
I don’t even want to talk about the eagle. It’s a well-known chestnut, always likely to embarrass productions more than it benefits them — not entirely unlike the bear in The Winter’s Tale. Shakespeare was clearly getting fond of planting traps for the players in his dotage. Here, it’s accompanied by a staggering amount of fog and has red eyes. It may have looked impressive head-on; from the sides, it looked silly. Worst of all, there was no pay-off: the scene, interminable in the play as written, seems to take place in Posthumus’s dream but is then revealed as reality when the waking Posthumus finds a tablet Jupiter left for him. The tablet is cut from this production, as is the interpretation of its prophetic contents in the final scene. Those cuts are understandable, as the reading of the prophecy is as interminable as the dream sequence. But why leave the eagle in at all in that case? What’s the point of the scene if it doesn’t involve the delivery of an oracular message from the gods? Conversely, given that Cimolino professes an interest in the play’s treatment of dreams in his director’s notes, why not focus on the scene’s staging of a slippage between dream and reality? As it stands, it’s a bit of relatively clunky but doubtless expensive special effects work of very little value for the play.
There’s more to be said about staging. The Tom Patterson Theatre is an interesting but challenging space — a very long and quite narrow thrust stage. Audiences on the sides invariably get to look at actors’ backs a lot of the time. Worse, many of the production’s key visual moments depend on lighting effects projected through the tall gates at the narrow back of the stage, and can only be guessed at from the sides; they must have been impressive head-on, but much less so from a more oblique angle. In both regards, the contrast between Cymbeline and Elektra was striking. The blocking of the latter was so fluid that I wasn’t sure how much of it was improvised; actors were constantly on the move, especially alongside or on top of the three large tables that ran down the length of the stage. In Cymbeline, movements were much more obviously defined, leading to occasional moments where actors were clearly directing their lines to the three sides of the auditorium in turn simply to give each of us our share, not because the movement was motivated in any other way. In other words, in this way as in so many others, what happened in Elektra was part of a coherent concept; what happened in Cymbeline seemed to happen because it had to happen at that particular moment in the performance, for practical reasons. One more example: both shows use microphones. But in Elektra, we get to see the mic. It’s used as a prop, and it works both visually and aurally. In Cymbeline, we get an echo effect, in case we can’t imagine what an echo sounds like; and, much more problematically, we get to hear Iachimo’s description of Innogen’s bedchamber, spoken by him as he’s stalking around the room while she is asleep, through the theatre’s sound system. I have no idea what the point of this is. It turns the speech into a quasi-cinematic voice over, but that’s pointless and unnecessary — asides are used very effectively elsewhere in the play, so why not here? To add to the incoherence, while the production seems to think a villain talking out loud would be unbelievable, it simultaneously asks us to accept that Innogen is so fast asleep that Iachimo can climb into bed with her to simulate a quick hump. None of this makes any sense, logically or aesthetically; it feels like an effect used for the sake of using an effect.
That’s all rather negative. But this isn’t a terrible production by any means. Underneath all the windowdressing, there are solid performances, some very nicely realized moments, and a show that for the most part makes a tricky and confusing play watchable and entertaining. While it’s not as fast as it could be, the pace is rapid enough. But it’s not a show with a clear vision or direction of any kind. There are elements here that reminded me of the kinds of shows that have become standard at the reconstructed Globe in London: nicely costumed, watchable, unexciting but solid productions (although that’s not all the Globe does these days). Cimolino’s professed desire to work from the text up also would support this comparison. However, that approach is totally at odds with all the production-values-for-production-values’-sake stuff: the needless clutter of props, the superfluous tech, and the decision to hardly double any characters at all. (The most exciting version of Cymbeline I’ve ever seen was one of the Globe’s more experimental efforts, with a cast of six actors. This one has 25.) Perhaps all of that makes this a typical, if largely successful, Stratford production: the kind of Shakespeare few places do anymore. Glossy, but traditional. Shiny and techy, but old-fashioned.
* * *
Watching these two shows on the same day was a puzzling experience. The first, a play few audience members would have known well or ever seen before, was driven almost entirely by a rich and rigorous directorial vision — an approach that proclaimed its essential dedication to historical principles and yet found a thoroughly modern form for its performance. The second, a play widely available and presumably at least somewhat known to Stratford faithfuls, though quite rarely staged, seemed to be mainly concerned with doing Shakespeare “right” — with appropriate outfits, and appropriate fight scenes, and appropriately impressive effects. That struck me as a very strange contrast.
One might have expected the play less familiar, written in an idiom unlike the Stratford staple, set in a context and a mythology unlike that of the festival’s patron saint, to be given a more cautious staging — one that would have introduced audiences to the play itself, rather than one that presented them with a director’s particular vision of that play. Instead, we get an ancient classic that’s given new life; and we get an early modern classic that’s preserved, museum-piece-like, in a fancy case. The audiences at both performances looked pretty much the same, and both houses seemed to be sold out. All of which makes me wonder who shows like that Cymbeline are for, and why we need them at all — why anyone would want a show like that when they can have shows like Elektra. Perhaps it’s less jarring around here to get an unconventional Sophocles, because no-one’s quite sure what the proper conventions might be; whereas everyone’s quite certain how Shakespeare is properly done (even though that propriety is increasingly a local phenomenon), which would make a Shakespeare given a similarly rigorously directed treatment seem alienatingly unconventional if not simply “wrong.” This may be true. But I would suggest that any theatre that clings too fondly to its conventions is slow-waltzing on its own grave.
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Holger Syme's work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.
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