Cymbeline at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, University Theatre, Boulder CO., August 5, 2016
Reviewed by Harriet Archer
Starring a wicked stepmother, a death-like sleep, a last-minute reprieve by a servant, and the platonic kindness of some rustic strangers, Shakespeare’s Cymbeline looks very like the story of Snow White at times, and Disney’s Snow White at that. The Colorado Shakespeare Festival company took this similarity and ran with it, from the leafy stage set to the cartoon-ready costumes, and Imogen’s distaste when presented by Polydore/Guiderius (Benaiah Anderson) with an armful of dead woodland critters. Some sleight of hand with the allocation of lines at the beginning and end had the characters introduce and conclude their portions of the story, framed as a reading from a leather bound tome, whose presence on stage cemented the storybook theme, but also drew out the play’s obsession with reading and misreading, of bodies, objects and texts. Hammy and camp, the production played up the comic potential of asides to the audience, and pantomime purple lighting switched on and off as the scheming of the evil Queen (Anne Penner), with her table of multi-coloured potions and dry ice, gave way to saccharine charm. This self-aware staginess worked to ease the more outlandish of the play’s twists, and the final sequence of fairy-tale revelations, which can become genuinely tedious in performance, was delivered knowingly, Guiderius’s ‘let me end the story’ arch rather than earnest. Howard Swain’s appearance as Jupiter ex machina, and his celestial tiff with Posthumus’s father’s ghost (Sam Sandoe), were also, therefore, subsumed by the fantasy setting, tinfoil lightning and implausible beard only adding to the thrilling but unserious coup de théâtre. Playing Cymbeline for laughs felt like a refreshing recognition of the text’s formal irreverence and playfulness, so often overlooked in attempts to explain or categorise its oddities away. Shakespeare designed his ostensible history of Britain as a fable, naming Cymbeline’s sons after their legendary rather than historical personae, and adding ‘Polydore’ as Guiderius’s pseudonym after the Polydore Vergil who had recently debunked that very myth. Straight-faced readings do this mischievous ahistoricity a disservice, and this version, foregrounding its artificiality for all it was worth, was riotously entertaining.
If Cymbeline is a fairy story, it is also a greatest hits compilation. Some of those hits are As You Like It, and the Merchant of Venice, and the Comedy of Errors, but they are also Romeo and Juliet, and Othello, and Titus Andronicus. This production fell down, for me, when Sean Scrutchins’ pantomime villain Cloten failed to turn really nasty. He was still stamping and stuttering, and the audience still laughing, when he set out his plans for his step sister and her husband (Steven Cole Hughes):
She said upon a time…that she
held the very garment of Posthumus in more respect
than my noble and natural person together with the
adornment of my qualities. With that suit upon my
back, will I ravish her: first kill him, and in her
eyes…when my lust hath dined – which, as I say, to vex
her I will execute in the clothes that she so
praised – to the court I’ll knock her back, foot
her home again.
Cloten’s psychopathy, and his ‘nice guy’ sense of entitlement to Imogen’s body, were buried in his comic outrage, and his grisly debt to Titus’s Chiron and Demetrius diminished. However, Lindsey Kyler as Imogen pulled this back in her Juliet-like awakening next to Cloten’s headless body, despite the slapstick business which sees Guiderius lob the bagged-up head into a river, and effectively conveyed the discomfort of the text’s coexisting genres. Geoffrey Kent’s Iachimo was a truly creepy Iago-lite. Imogen’s ‘burial’ was touching without being mawkish, and nodded to the play’s complicated negotiation of ancient and early modern nationhood with the performance of a smudging ritual.
So I would not hold this production’s sense of humour against it. As a Brit abroad in the aftermath of Brexit, Cloten and the Queen’s isolationist defiance of Michael Morgan’s Caius Lucius (‘Britain is| A world by itself; and we will nothing pay| For wearing our own noses’) was another angle I would have liked to have seen drawn out, but which was, perhaps wisely, let lie. I only wish I’d made it to the CSF’s Henry VI Part 2 as well.