Cymbeline (Phizzical) @ Grand Opera House, Belfast, 2013Tragedy

  • Ramona Wray

Cymbeline, directed by Sâmir Bhamra for Phizzical at the Grand Opera House, Belfast, Northern Ireland. 29 October 2013.

Review by Sonja Kleij, Romano Mullin, and Matt Williamson.


Photograph by Robert Day.

Photograph by Robert Day.

It is clear from the start that this is no ordinary production. As Cymbeline begins, the two leads appear to a blast of Indian pop, brandishing microphones and launching into a song laden with knowing quotations from across Shakespeare’s work. It’s a meeting of cultures that defines the action from then on. Not content with simply tacking on an Indian setting, Phizzical Theatre has made small but significant changes to the script itself. Cymbeline is now a Bollywood mogul and his step-son a super-star. The Roman army becomes a mafia gang akin to the ‘D-Company’ of notorious crime-boss Dawood Ibrahim. And most dramatically, the company has changed the significance of the central romance. In Shakespeare’s original, the King’s daughter embarks on a daring marriage to the penniless Posthumous. Phizzical Theatre rewrites that relationship in religious terms, with the renamed Sherrudin undesirable as much for his faith as his class. Shakespeare’s national myth has become a comment on the enduring significance of Indian Partition.

The company has made the ambitious decision to capture Cymbeline’s vast range of roles with a cast of only six.  The result was swift character changes, with the help of an array of simple but effective costumes.  The distinction between the male characters is therefore made by different changes in shirts, jackets and accessories. For example, the royal family were arrayed in rich materials, whilst the rebels were in dark and simple jackets. The cast provides a subtle rendering of their Bollywood inflected Shakespearean characters, primarily through their deft physicality. Tony Hasnath should be commended on his menacing and magnetic portrayal of Yakim. In one memorable scene, he pulls, slides and slithers his way around the sleeping Innojaan weaving his treacherous plan. Throughout Hasnath provides the most impressive display of physical acting, with the rest of the company approaching the billed physicality in a less perspicuous manner, preferring instead to rely on Bollywood tropes and occasionally laboured gesturing to get their point across.

The actor with the most impressive repertoire of characters is Robby Khela, who inhabits the personae of servant, bad boy, and wild young princeling with ease, good humour and flashes of tenderness. In contrast, Nicholas Gauci as the self-absorbed and humourless Cloten cannot shake off the shroud of the camp pantomime villain when he takes on the mantle of Cymbeline, whose attempts at gravity are limited by Gauci’s flat handling of the role. Yet it is Malika, played by Liz Jadav, who performs her role with a generosity of characterisation that ensures she imprints the performance with her presence. Malika’s character is emphasised by her costuming: her black sari associating her with death and evil, with small gold and red details emphasising her status and wealth.  She becomes a stereotypical evil Queen, a role she relishes and which she inflects with equal measures of wicked step mother and shrewd political operator.  By contrast, her turn as Bela, the maid who secreted away Cymbeline’s sons and raised them as her own, demonstrates Jadav’s ability to balance comedy with turns at dark hearted villainy.

The only actor to play one character is Sophie Kahn Levy as Innojaan, a role that is emphasised through her detailed costuming and the use of several different brightly coloured saris. The red and white sari she wears during the opening scene gestures towards the Hindu understanding of red as the colour of purity and marriage, and white as the colour of mourning. Innojaan’s situation as a new bride, saddened by her husband’s absence is summarised in her garment and sets the tone for the rest of the play. Later she cross-dresses to hide her identity and survive in the wilderness. This is probably the reason why she did not have any double roles, ensuring there would be no confusion. The clothes were especially necessary to show the transformation between her female and male personae, since her acting did not change. She simply becomes a woman wearing pants.

The understated costuming was complimented by the simple but efficient set. It leaves enough to the imagination of the audience, while also creating the wide range of locations required for the performance. A raised platform was used as balcony, cave, bedroom and the trunk in which Yakim hides. The right side of the stage featured a working fountain, with a golden bell. This area served as an Arabian bathhouse, a natural spring and a temple. The stage in its entirety represents everything from palace to wilderness to battlefield.

Whilst ambitious, the production is not without its problems. The sheer range of the references invoked results in a lack of clarity and consistency. The Bollywood setting, for example, was tentatively invoked in the beginning, quietly abandoned for much of the play and then rather clumsily insisted on towards the play’s end. Although the attempt to relate Cymbeline to Indian Partition is to be admired, the delivery was often flawed; most notably, the sudden appearance of a Muslim prayer mat during a scene in which Sherrudin delivered a speech laden with misogyny seemed unsubtle and unnecessary. And above all, by combining the light-hearted approach with a darker and more urgent political message the company risked undermining both. There were times when the result seemed simply a grab-bag of Indian tropes without logic or consistency

Yet while this discord undermines the attempt at political relevance, it captures much that makes the original play unique. Shakespeare’s Cymbeline is a world away from the unity and structure of his earlier work. It is a mixture of tones and styles very like the diverse cultural references which the company has brought to bear on it. It was this chaos that the company’s approach seemed calculated to repeat. What the production loses in focus it gains in energy. The cast delivers the fusion of Renaissance English and modern-day Hindi with an ease that is thoroughly convincing. And for all the problems, it is hard not to be won over by the enthusiasm with which they present the ensuing chaos. Certainly, the attempt to apply Shakespeare’s text to the problems of partition is not entirely successful, but the result is still an enjoyable take on an underperformed play.

Ramona Wray

Author: Ramona Wray

Ramona Wray is Reader in Renaissance Literature at Queen’s University, Belfast. She writes about Shakespearean film-making and early modern women’s writing.