Cymbeline – September 2006

Experience: 10/10

By William Shakespeare (sort of)

Directed by Emma Rice

Company: Kneehigh

Venue: Swan Theatre

Date: Thursday 28th September 2006

Yee-ha! This was superb theatre, exciting, energetic, entertaining, and even told the story of Cymbeline clearly. I will go a long way to see this company again. (I’ll have to, as they’re based in Cornwall.) Steve had previously seen Kneehigh’s production of Tristan and Yseult, and suggested their style was a cross between Northern Broadsides and Shared Experience. I get his point, but the reality is so much better than that description.

The set was a metal cage, with lots of ways of opening the doors to create different spaces. The musicians were mostly on the upper level, though they came down to help Cloten serenade Imogen. The actors were everywhere – up, down, clambering here and there. Chairs, beds, mattresses, braziers and the like came on and off as needed – God knows where they kept all this stuff. At the top corners of the cage were two birds – an owl and a cockerel. At dawn, the cock crowed, and at sunset, the owl did what owls do. Both were animated, and very funny. There was also a deer puppet, for Pisanio to kill, and I still feel sad about that – it’s amazing how an obvious puppet, being moved by someone I can see, can engage me so much. We’ll come to the box, the ship and the seagulls in a bit.

Costumes were mostly 50s style for the dresses, and up-to-date for the parkas, tracksuit bottoms and t-shirts etc. The music was varied, from heavy rock to Latin American to melancholy flute – anything and everything. Beautiful. The theme of the play was dispossession, and reuniting people with those they have lost, including themselves. The dialogue was mostly invented, but some of the original remains.

They started with a rock music background, while hooded figures put pictures, flowers, a teddy bear, etc. on the front of the cage. They also pinned up sheets of cardboard on which they jointly sprayed the word REMEMBER. Then we had a musical interlude in which the main characters acted out the events prior to the play starting – Posthumus and Imogen in love, being discovered, Posthumus being banished, etc. Then Joan Puttock (no, she’s not in the original) arrived, and between her and Pisanio we got the back story. Joan has been out of the country for 20 years, and in between bouts of La Cucaracha, shows us her pictures of Spain, and her new hunk of a husband, who’s sadly run off with another woman. Fortunately for anyone who doesn’t know the plot, she learns from Pisanio that the king’s two sons were kidnapped 20 years ago, and haven’t been seen since, presumed dead. The queen died soon after of a broken heart, and the king remarried, to his nurse. Imogen fell in love with Posthumus, an orphan of unknown parentage brought up by the king in his household, but as the king now wants Imogen to marry Cloten, his new wife’s son, he’s banished Posthumus. Whew. I didn’t realise how complicated all this stuff was, but Joan helped us all out by going over the main points several times.

After this hugely entertaining introduction to the play, we see Imogen and Posthumus take a final leave of one another. The evil step-mother is supposedly helping them, and lets them have five minutes to say goodbye. They swap gifts – Imogen giving Posthumus her ring, and Posthumus gives her ….. his wristwatch, as he doesn’t seem to have anything else about his person. Posthumus tells her he’s going to …. Italy. They get a lot of humour out the choice of locations – he’s got the whole world to choose from, and he chooses …. Italy. (Later on, the choice of Milford Haven gets the same treatment, and bucketloads of laughs.) His ship arrives. It’s a small ship, with a hole in the middle, which two other actors put over his head – the straps then hold it in place. They then put a cap on his head that has seagulls dangling off it, and for the final touch, they flick some wires out of the boat, and there are fishes swimming around it! This was so funny to see. Even funnier was the way he then moved, in a stately fashion, across the stage, while Pisanio reported his going to Imogen, who was locked in an upper room. As Posthumus got to the edge of the stage, his cap was too tall to get under the roof, so he had to bend his knees a bit to get off – also hilarious.

Off to Italy, where the cage doors open to reveal the brothel which Posthumus is heading for. The ‘girls’ have a little frolic first, and the music is VERY LOUD! Their pimp is Iachimo, all Latin smarm, hairy chest and tight trousers. When Posthumus arrives, he refuses to have sex with any of the girls. Or any of the boys. Or any of the goats. He declares he loves a perfect woman. This upsets both the local tarts and Iachimo, who bets him two Ferraris and ten million lira to Imogen’s ring that he will get proof that Imogen is as naughty as the rest of them. I wanted to shout out to Posthumus not to take the bet (yes, I’d descended to that level) but I didn’t, and he did. Thinking the two Ferraris and the dosh were in the bag, he gives Iachimo a letter for Imogen.

At some point around here we see the Queen doping up the king, to a musical interlude. Another time, we also see her stripping down to her undies to serenade him and make it clear he’s her boy now.

Iachimo arrives in England, pushing a large box. It’s so heavy, he asks a member of the audience – a woman, naturally – to help him push it the last few feet. At least he gives her some chocolates for her trouble, plus his card, with the usual leer and ‘call me’. He meets Imogen, tries a quickie seduction, no luck. Seriously rebuffed. Unfortunately, she’s too good-natured to suspect him when he pretends it’s all a test of her virtue. Then he tells her he needs somewhere safe to store his box for the night. Only he doesn’t just tell her. Oh no. This is seduction by another means. With the box smack in the centre of the stage he starts to caress it and stroke it, like it was the most desirable woman in the world. Imogen, Pisanio, me, and at least half the audience were panting with desire after this. (What am I saying, during it, as well) This had the desired effect, and Imogen offered to store such a valuable box in her room overnight, as Iachimo plans to leave early the next day.

That night, as she’s snuggled down to sleep, the box opens, and Iachimo sneaks out. First he checks out her room, shining a flashlight round, so we can see what he’s spotted – the globe in particular. Then he has to get the wristwatch off her wrist. This was one of the funniest wristwatch removal sequences I could ever wish to see. Of course, she keeps moving to make it more difficult, and in the end he’s got her held upright on the bed, and is shaking her arm gently to get the watch to fall off, which it does. Then he lets her down gently, only to find she’s lying on the watch! Eventually he gets it, and finishes up by checking her out for identifying marks he can report back to Posthumus. He spots a mole or some such on her buttock, and is satisfied. So satisfied, he actually lights up a cigarette before disappearing back into the box. Evil bastard.

Next morning, the cock crows, Imogen wakes up, and is distraught to find the watch is missing. Cloten has brought the musicians along to help him serenade her, but she’s not remotely interested – she’s desperately searching her room for the missing watch. Cloten sticks his legs and arms through the grill of the cage, and then his head, only to find he can’t get it back out again once Imogen’s left. As he’s already pissed off the musicians, by telling them they were so lousy he’s not going to pay them (always a mistake, I feel), he’s left dangling there till Mummy comes to get him out (with the help of her ever-ready KY Jelly). She advises him to rape Imogen and presents him with a bottle of Rohypnol to assist. This he will later put in the Amaretto in Imogen’s suitcase, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Back in Italy, Iachimo has won his bet; Posthumus is convinced by the ‘proof’, and in despair. He writes to Pisanio telling her to lure Imogen to Milford Haven and kill her in the woods there. He also writes to Imogen telling her he’s coming to Milford Haven, and asking her to meet him there. But how to get the letter to England? During the performance, there’s been a remote-control toy car whizzing around from time to time, and now it comes to Posthumus’ aid. As it arrives by his feet, he puts the letters in it, and it whizzes (a bit more carefully) round the stage, finally arriving at Pisanio’s feet. She picks up the letters and gives Imogen hers, pretending the other is from her own mother. She’s pretty shocked at being asked to kill Imogen, but goes along with it for now. Imogen is totally thrilled to be seeing Posthumus again. “He’s in Milford Haven”, she cries ecstatically, “Where’s Milford Haven?”, and rushes off to her globe to find it. This gets the biggest laugh of the evening. I’m sorry I can’t convey the way it was said, it was just so funny. She finds out it’s in Wales, and arranges immediately with Pisanio to head off, throwing her clothes over the metal wall for Pisanio to pack. As she heads off to sort out travel arrangements, Cloten pounces on Pisanio, and by threatening violence discovers their plan. This is where he puts the Rohypnol in the Amaretto, without Pisanio’s knowledge. He also decides to put on Posthumus’ clothes to rape Imogen, just to make her suffer even more. Like mother, like son, both evil bastards.

Imogen comes running back to say she’s thumbed a lift from a lorry driver (Gary?) who can take them as far as Birmingham, and off they go. In Italy, Iachimo and Pisanio are heading off to race the two Ferraris. Apparently Iachimo’s garage is located at the end of a long trek through the Swan auditorium (I suppose the RSC has to raise money any way it can), and at the same time Imogen and Pisanio are approaching Milford Haven, also on the outskirts of the Swan stage, meaning they have to trek through the auditorium as well. I may have missed the odd line as I whisked my feet out of the way of oncoming actors, but on the whole this is the kind of audience participation I enjoy. It’s fun being so close to the action. I remember Iachimo was telling Posthumus that you have to handle a Ferrari gently, like a woman, as they were passing us.

On arrival at Milford Haven, Pisanio tries to kill Imogen, but can’t, and confesses all. A beautiful little deer comes along just then, and Pisanio kills that (I still feel very sad), to send the heart to Posthumus. Imogen, needless to say, is distraught that her Posthumus should want her killed, and takes to the wilds of Milford Haven, with her bottle of Amaretto, and dresses like a boy in parka and trousers, calling herself Ian. She finds a squat somewhere and settles down to sleep, only to be disturbed by the folk who already live there – an older man and two younger ones. They take to Imogen and say she can stay with them. When there’s a disturbance, they go to check it out, and she stays behind, so nervous that she drinks some of the Amaretto to steady her nerves. Soon they’re so steady she falls asleep. Meanwhile, the boys have discovered Cloten swaggering about, and quite naturally bump him off, as you would. Finding the disguised Imogen apparently dead, they lay her body next to Cloten’s and surround them both with candles. Very pretty. I don’t remember now how they did Imogen waking up, or if that bit was dropped.

Back in Italy, the head of state has declared war on Britain. The despotic tyrant, who looks remarkably like Marcello Magni, had previously demanded that Cymbeline start sending tribute again, but thanks to the naughty queen, he’d been sent away with a flea in his ear. Now he wants war, and Posthumus and Iachimo sign up. I think Posthumus has received what he thinks is Imogen’s heart by now, so naturally he’s feeling remorse – bit bloody late now!

The appearance of Marcello Magni needs to be explained. They’ve taken some photos of him in various poses, and show them on a screen, while one of the actors stands behind putting their arms through to do the gestures. There’s also a tape of Marcello saying the lines. Very funny, and I suppose it allows for variations from night to night.

Anyway, Posthumus and Iachimo head back to Britain. This time, the boat has crows flying above it. To show the war, they bring out a giant game board, and use it to indicate who’s fighting who. We get a short scene with Posthumus, in prison, and seeing the vision of Jupiter and his parents, and then we’re off for the final reconciliations, as everybody turns out to be …. everybody who’s missing. Strangely enough, although we’ve seen Posthumus’ vision, and Joan Puttock turns up again to produce a key to open the box his (dead) parents give him, we don’t get the full unravelling of the mystery in this version. We just get the two sets of kids snuggling up in bed, Cymbeline’s sons in one, Imogen and Posthumus in the other. Kind of sweet, but a little disappointing.

Not that disappointing, though, as this was still one of the best things I’ve seen this year, and I would happily see it again, given the chance.

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

The Tempest – September 2006

Experience: 3/10

By William Shakespeare

Directed by Rupert Goold

Venue: RST

Date: Thursday 28th September 2006

I was a bit disappointed with this production – I expected it to be better than it was. There were some aspects I liked, but on the whole I found it uninteresting and somewhat dull.

Before the start, a screen at the front of the stage showed a painting of some sort of radio receiver, on a huge scale. The opening lines were unusual – a shipping forecast that mentioned “North” and “Iceland”, and gave a storm warning in the traditional clipped form of such broadcasts. The speaker part of the radio then faded as the lighting behind revealed the ship’s radio cabin, where all the storm action took place. Ariel appeared towards the end of this scene, to indicate his involvement in the adverse weather conditions.

The good point about this staging was that the lines were fairly clear, and we got a chance to see the various characters – John Hopkins as Sebastian showing his craven character from the off – and Ariel’s arrival was interesting. However, I found the whole sequence off-putting for a number of reasons. Firstly, the shipping forecast makes it clear that the island we’ve arrived at is either Iceland, or somewhere else in the north Atlantic – a frozen waste instead of a Mediterranean rock. Those sailors must have been extraordinarily bad to have arrived in the North Atlantic from Tunis, headed for Naples! If they wanted to get across the connotations of Iceland (barren waste, prison-like, possible Frankenstein?(this was Steve’s thought)), surely we didn’t need such a specific reference. Secondly, the cramped cabin, while making the point that the aristocrats are seriously in the sailors’ way, does make the scene pretty static, and the sense of a life-threatening storm is lost. (Although Jean-Luc’s experience at synchronised ship-rolling probably came in useful here.) Nor did it help that Ariel reminded me of Lurch, the Addams’ family butler. All in all, not the most auspicious start.

Second up, we have Prospero’s account of the family history to Miranda. The scene opens with Prospero standing at a brazier, with his back to us, wearing a fur rug attached to a head-dress made out of an animal’s sacrum and tail bones. Or as I thought at first, some alien life-form that had invaded the island while Prospero wasn’t looking. (I suppose it was inevitable that Star Trek references would start to pop up in what is, after all, a pretty surreal play by Shakespeare’s standards.) The scruffiness of their home, the need for serious warmth on a Mediterranean isle that just happens to be in the North Atlantic, all these things I could live with. I wasn’t taken with Miranda, though. I accept that she’s been on this island from a young age, with only her father and Caliban for company, so she doesn’t know much about the outside world or social graces. And there’s no reason why daughters of aristocracy or royalty always have to be good-looking – our own royal family proves that. Still, I wasn’t keen on a Miranda who looks and acts like a ten-year-old who would rather be playing with her dolls than getting interested in the opposite sex. Her gawkiness was matched by an expression which made her look more pugnacious than usual, although her manner was anything but. In fact, this character could have slept through the entire play for all the animation she displayed. Not a criticism of the actress, who was fine later on as Portia in Julius Caesar, but another way in which this production failed to engage me. It made it hard to believe that Ferdinand would have fallen for her – it may just have been strategy on his part, but it wasn’t played that way as far as I could see. I also found Ariel’s first appearance here rather comic – he pops up out of the brazier! All we see is his head sticking up. Given that I found his appearance pretty funny anyway, I couldn’t take this seriously, although his later ‘magical’ appearance from behind the door was more effective.

Apart from the cramped cabin, the set was a barren landscape, with a mound of debris slightly off-centre, and bits of plank etc., sticking out of it. There were a few poles forming some kind of support for an upturned half-boat, or what was left of it. This appeared to be Caliban’s only shelter, and he’s hiding inside this boat when we first encounter him. As he’s attached to it by a long rope, he also drags it round with him, and it becomes his cover during the storm when Trinculo discovers him. One aspect of the production I liked was the repetition of this dragging theme – Caliban drags his boat, and also some logs. Ferdinand also drags logs, and there were other echoes of this throughout the play. I found this a good visual theme.

Caliban is not as gruesome in this version as in some I’ve seen. He’s a bit mucky, true, and also tends to walk on all fours, but he’s not hideously deformed or ugly. Again, I felt sorry for him, but then I’ve rarely found Prospero a sympathetic character, and his treatment of Caliban is the main cause for that. The business with Trinculo and Stefano was amusing, full of sexual innuendo, but I only laughed out loud once, towards the end, at a bit of business I’ve now forgotten. The kids in the audience loved it, and it was certainly in keeping with Shakespeare’s comedy, but again it left me largely unmoved. There never seemed to be any real threat to Prospero from this group, which can happen.

The scene Prospero conjures up for the young lovers was very different from the standard. The three fairies rose from one of the bunk beds in the cabin, and proceeded to carry out a form of marriage ritual, using earth, fire, water and cloth. All the while they produced a weird chanting, which took a little getting used to, but I did like it. There was none of the usual goddesses, and I found this refreshing, and much more in keeping with this reading of the play.

The King of Naples and his cronies were OK, but without distinction. Ferdinand was fine, but with nothing much to play against, this character on his own couldn’t make a real difference. I did like the fake feast, though. The fairies brought on a large seal (deceased) on a sledge. The nasty folk fell to, hands full of bloody blubber, while the good guys stood aloof. Then Ariel bursts forth from the seal carcass, with additional wire effects of wings and claws, and scares the shit out of everyone. Excellent. Incidentally, this Ariel was on a go-slow. I’ve seen this done before – a steady, graceful glide rather than a nimble hyperactive sprite, and it can work very well. Here it was OK, but didn’t add anything for me.

          One thing that did work, though, was the exchange between Prospero and Ariel, where Ariel’s own sense of pity for the wrongdoers’ suffering here effectively triggers Prospero’s own forgiveness. He was obviously heading for resolution anyway, but I got the feeling Ariel’s expression of pity surprises Prospero, and softens his plans somewhat. I could be wrong, but that’s how I took it.

          So now I suppose I have to tackle the hardest subject of all – what I thought of the central performance. Look, I’ve enjoyed so much of Patrick Stewart’s work that I hate having to say anything less than ‘he played a blinder’. Indeed, till this season, I didn’t think I’d have to, such is the man’s talent and experience. I guess I’ll just have to accept that this reading of the play didn’t work for me. I couldn’t get any real sense from the performance of the man’s past, nor much sense of his emotional journey through the events of the play. Unless it was meant to be an unsympathetic reading, in which case, fine. But I couldn’t help feeling there was a lot more to be got out of this major part, and I just wasn’t seeing it. Ah well.

Overall, I felt the staging worked against the text in too many ways, and brought the whole production down.

[Update from the front lines: Steve saw this again in London, and confirmed that it had come on a great deal since we saw it in Stratford. The performances were more expressive, some of the staging had been changed, especially in the scene where we first see Prospero, and he felt it was a much better performance than before.]

© 2006 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me