Year of Shakespeare: Cymbeline at the BarbicanTragedyYear of Shakespeare

  • John Lavagnino

This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.


Cymbeline, The Ninagawa Company, dir. by Yukio Ninagawa, 2 June 2012 at the Barbican Theatre, London

By John Lavagnino, King’s College London

Ninagawa directs Cymbeline as though there’s nothing much wrong with the play, and you leave the theatre feeling the same way. There’s still a long series of unlikely revelations in the last scene, and the audience was laughing frequently; the scene also had many moments that were meant to be beautiful and moving, and were. There were no directorial ideas devised to get around the difficulties many have identified in the play; it was done straight and that seemed to work fine. But straight for Ninagawa varies from what would normally count as a straightforward Shakespeare production in a large London theatre: primarily in the use of a variety of Japanese acting styles that are very different from what we normally see, and secondarily in costumes that would be conceivable and usable here but still aren’t the norm for us.

The actors do many things familiar on the Japanese stage that our actors wouldn’t venture for fear of looking too hammy. The men are mostly warriors and they bellow for all they’re worth when roused, or even when just agreeing; they try to look terrifying most of the time, and their costumes support it, whether they’re leaders in complicated and gaudy attire, or the exiles in Wales mostly dressed in animal skins. There’s no interest in making them look a little more like modern bureaucratic generals, and in the production as a whole no bother about relating it all to modern urban life. Other styles on view include that of the comic servant, from Pisanio, who for all his resourcefulness is still usually standing there with his knees spread and mouth open, physically of a different breed from the nobles. Schemers like Iachimo and the Queen or thinkers like Posthumus often go to the front of the stage and tell us what they’ve got in mind, with none of the business other directors might contrive for variety. Instead, these actors have their voices, and they vary how they speak in remarkable ways during these long speeches, the other side of the warrior-talk that often seems much too uniform. Best of all is Innogen: though Shinobu Otake is far too old for the role you barely notice, as she looks and sounds right, especially in her disguise as a page. (And yes, it’s always Innogen in the dialogue, though it’s always Imogen in the surtitles and programme.)

Everyone in even the smallest part is committed, effective, well cast; nobody in a large scene just stands around. It’s not terribly inward, and it doesn’t want to be. It follows the text very closely: an extended battle scene in 5.2 is still only a minor extension of what stage directions already require. The battle, mostly in slow motion, shows us the encounter of Iachimo and Posthumus as specified, but adds the valour of the disguised princes; and it is visually echoed by the end of the show, which also switches to slow motion, this time as everyone rejoices and withdraws upstage. That slaughter and peace look so similar is not an accident: it’s ugliness that the production always avoids.

Ninagawa is not a director who’s going to give Innogen an iPad or set the whole story in a time and place pointedly remote from the original; the look and performance may be Japanese but that isn’t made part of the point, and there is nothing to cue the idea that “Rome” and “Britain” really mean someplace else. Unless you are entirely unfamiliar with international Shakespeare you wouldn’t find that a surprise, and there are few scenes in which the approach is unexpected. One is the entrance of Jupiter, who is indeed flying on a giant eagle, a static cutout in profile with raised wings: a crane drives around the stage raising and lowering him, and he’s so brilliantly lit that although this crane is just visible you aren’t thinking about it. It’s typical of the production that something often felt to be a problem for directors is handled in a way that makes it seem no problem at all, but is also still theatrically impressive. The bigger surprise is when Jupiter speaks: he is masked and chants softly rather than booming. He has only a few stylized gestures, and according to Japanese speakers the translation, in this speech only, has an archaic register that suggests a religious text. Lightning and thunder announced the thunder god, but when he appears a very different set of religious conventions takes over.

The dirge is one of the rare moments that seems like a misstep, in a production where everything shows superb judgment (the only other detail I thought seemed wrong was having Posthumus appear after the battle with a few arrows protruding from his body, though I found other people didn’t mind this). Belarius goes off to get Cloten’s body, and Guiderius and Arviragus begin tentatively, singing quietly, as though making it up together but also preoccupied with their grief; after a line or two Belarius returns, and the surprise is that the singing stops right there and we go on to the business of flower-strewing. They didn’t even do the whole first verse. It was the same in both the Friday and Saturday performances, so not some sort of glitch. In a production that likes the element of wonder and welcomes strong emotion, the omission is remarkable. Could the most famous lines in the play be the ones that Ninagawa found inappropriate or unworkable?

When you enter the theatre you think you’ve stumbled into the dressing room, because that’s what’s on stage: two ranks of dressing tables, and everyone in the cast in front of you getting ready. When the time comes, the two dozen actors assemble into a line at the front of the stage and take a round of applause before doing anything else. That was the only time they seemed to be relying on the fame of the company and director.

What do you think of this interpretation of Shakespeare? Add your thoughts to the discussion below!

Interested to know what audiences in Japan made of this production? Click here to read a review from Tokyo by Yu Umemiya.

What others are saying about the production at the Barbican:

To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.

Author: John Lavagnino

John Lavagnino is Reader in Digital Humanities at King's College London. He was one of the general editors of The Oxford Middleton.