I’ll be seeing a lot of theatre over the next two weeks, and I’m badly out of practice in writing about shows — it’s been almost a year since I last did a proper review! (Is anyone even still reading this? Let’s find out…) So I’m just going to throw whatever responses have up on the old blog in the hope that that’s going to get the engine started.

Here we go, then: Cymbeline, seen through the haze of jet lag last night the same day I got to the UK. Also seen after wandering around Stratford-upon-Avon looking at everyone, especially everyone older than me, thinking “you probably voted for Brexit, didn’t you.” And at the end of a day that made me feel, quite distressingly, that so many of the things that always seemed merely quaint, merely adorably parochial, merely cutely hidebound about England suddenly had turned into markers of a provincial, narrow-minded, perniciously nostalgic, and not-very-charming-at-all mindset (which isn’t fair, I’ll readily admit: I was quite shocked at myself when I realized what I was feeling).

This may seem like a digression, but it’s not: Melly Still’s production advertises itself quite openly as inspired by the referendum that was looming as the show was in rehearsal — in the program, Still describes the world in which she has set the play as “a dystopian Britain some time in the not too distant future when the country’s belligerent independence and insularity have taken root.” Her idea of contrasting a “decaying, litter-strewn and neglected” Britain with a “bright, fashion-conscious and multicultural Italy” seems like a delightfully assertive directorial stance: use Shakespeare’s play to make a point about now. But if that’s the project, the production doesn’t quite live up to it. In part, that’s because “now” has shifted since the show opened: the context is no longer a referendum on the horizon, but a Britain (or at least an England and a Wales) on the brink of leaving Europe behind. In that context, Cymbeline’s decision, after having defeated the Roman army, to renew Britain’s tributary status and “submit to Caesar / And to the Roman empire,” seems like an incongruently utopian development — or, I suppose, an inconceivably European-minded one (though either reading turns the EU into a quasi-imperial entity, and I’m not sure that’s quite what Still had in mind).

But in part, the political point is also blunted by just how badly decayed the production’s Britain is: it bear no resemblance to the world of the Camerons, Goves, and Johnsons. If Still is trying to make a point about now, she is doing it by triangulating off a very distant dystopian future reference point, so distant that its relation to the present is hard to fathom. Politically, this makes for a pretty fuzzy sort of commentary.

The show’s post-apocalyptic Britain is a concreted-over world in which trees are now museum pieces (a stump encased in a glass display case forms the set’s intriguing centrepiece for the first half of the show). Characters wear costumes made from recycled bits of cloth, or well-worn suits inherited from generations past. Italy, on the other hand, is populated by colourful, slightly Euro-trashy figures that seem stuck in our present: if Britain has moved on and deteriorated, Europe suffers from terminal arrest. If this signals a deep divide, the show elsewhere suggests an equally deep lasting family resemblance: the first Italian scene opens with a hilariously choreographed full-cast dance number (somewhat reminiscent of similar numbers in other RSC shows of recent years, including, if I remember correctly, The White Devil); when Cloten and his mates serenade Innogen later in the play, their song-and-dance fall into the same genre. Is Cloten the true European here, and Posthumus, who picks a fight as soon as he lands in Italy, the true parochialist?

Still makes easily her most radical intervention in those Italian scenes: most characters actually speak foreign languages here, Italian and French — and in the case of the expat Philario with a hysterically thick English accent. Shakespeare’s lines are projected onto the back wall, but merely paraphrased in French and Italian. The same happens during the scenes with the Romans — everyone suddenly speaks Latin. On the one hand, that fit nicely with the play’s own strange mix of historical periods and references, but it also caused me some cognitive strain: the soldiers weren’t uniformed in an analogously anachronistic way — they wore sort of contemporary uniforms (less futuristic than the Britains, but not as out of step with them as Ancient Rome is with Modern Rome in Cymbeline — and not really at all out of step with the show’s Italy). So why weren’t they speaking Italian as well?

Doing the Bard in many voices isn’t exactly new — Karin Beier started doing it in the 1990s, with some international success. But when this sort of thing happens elsewhere, it seems to me that it’s usually actors from different national backgrounds speaking in their own language, not English-speaking actors pretending to be from elsewhere. I’m not sure anyone was a native speaker of Italian or French (let alone Latin!) in this show — in other words, I don’t think anyone spoke their own language (other than English) even though that language wasn’t the character’s as written by Shakespeare. The complex (and intriguing) reflection on appropriation and cultural colonialism that multi-lingual performance can often lead to, then, wasn’t really at issue here. But what exactly was? It certainly didn’t help the actors to have to speak in an unfamiliar language, especially in the Latin scenes. Ironically, although they were released from the shackles of Shakespeare’s lines in those scenes, they were instantly robbed of that freedom by the even more alien language of ancient Rome.

By contrast, the Italian scene did manage to free the actors from the need to speak verse — or at least try to speak verse — well. They even allowed for a brief moment of ironic self-awareness: when Philario breaks into English and suddenly speaks blank verse, the Frenchman makes fun of him, mimicking the du-dum du-dum of his verse speaking. I wish that comic alertness to the oddity of verse would have informed the production throughout — instead, it mostly followed the usual RSC logic: the visual can change, but the text may not. Had I closed my eyes, I don’t think this Cymbeline would have sounded much different from any bog-standard RSC production.

A major exception to that rule: Bethan Cullinane as Innogen, who often managed to sound as if she just speaking. A lovely direct tone, quite free and in-the-moment. It’s always thrilling for me to hear actors shake off the yokes of the various schools of how to speak Shakespeare, and just own the words, no matter how they are written.

But for the most part, Still’s show followed the principles that are, to my mind, the hallmark of RSC productions: songs can be interesting; pre-show business can be interesting; sets can be interesting; casting can be interesting; but as soon as Shakespeare’s text has to be spoken, Shakespeare’s text has to be spoken, and then things get very predictable very quickly.

It’s an admirably diverse production, this, with a wonderfully multicultural cast and lots of women playing parts originally conceived as male — thus we have a Queen Cymbeline, with a scheming Duke for a husband; Posthumous has a female servant (Pisania, that is); and one of Cymbeline’s stolen children is a girl, too. This works perfectly fine; in fact, it may work better than Shakespeare’s design. The faux-jovial Duke, not falling into the evil step mother trope right away, is an intriguing and effectively unpredictable character, and the Queen’s swings between imperial wrath and parental sorrow (shaped by decades of loss), to me at least, are more interesting than the same shifts in a male figure. Pisania and Guideria? If I didn’t know I never would have suspected that those aren’t female roles. There is something admirable in letting go of the notion that characters are essentially gendered, and instead exploring what happens when a particular character (with a specific set of features and attributes) changes gender — and in this production, the experiment certainly pays off.

As experiments go, it’s harmless enough; not even daring enough to challenge Michael Billington (!). But I suppose in Stratford, one has to be grateful for the little things. Then again, I fondly remember Melly Still’s wild Revenger’s Tragedy at the National Theatre a few years ago, one of the most exciting productions of an early modern play I’ve seen in Britain. Knowing what she can do with old plays, I had hoped for more from her Cymbeline — for something that would, for once, not treat Shakespeare with the careful touch of the curator.

(Two quick addendums: the unfunniest Cloten I’ve ever seen. Sure, there were moments of psychological complexity as a pay-off, and that was reasonably interesting — but in becoming more “rounded” or “layered” or whatever, the character lost the comedic theatrical power of his simplicity. Secondly, I found myself quite distressed by the sight of Posthumous knocking Innogen (dressed as a boy) to the ground so hard that he bloodied her nose in Act 5 — and I found the speed of her forgiveness, not just of his jealousy but also of that act of physical violence, a little hard to take. I don’t think the production was trying to complicate that moment — or perhaps that was the goal, but if so, to what end?)

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