Sunday, May 13, 2007

Cheek by Jowl's "Cymbeline"

The performance last night played for laughs and plumbed the depths. At times I was not certain which response was called for, an uncertainty characteristic, I think, of Shakespeare's late romances. For laughs only: flanked by his sidekicks, wielding a microphone, Cloten wooed Imogen like the pretty leader of a boy's band; the Britons celebrated their victory over the Roman invaders by launching into a conga line.

And then there was that scene in which Imogen woke up from the drug that gave her the appearance of death, and discovered a body beside her, then its blood, then its lack of head, and then its garment which belonged to her husband, Posthumus. Her willingness to believe that the headless corpse must be Posthumus' echoed her husband's readiness to believe her infidelity. And both were wrong. Imogen's mistake dashes the hope expressed in my poem, "Head": the lover may identify the headless body wrongly for reasons to do with love, and the consequent fear of abandonment. We are all too ready to believe that our worst fears have come true.

The production made imaginative use of space. Characters often spoke to each other from different sides of the stage. To hide from Cymbeline standing center, Posthumus and Imogen bade each other farewell from opposite sides of the stage front. When Cymbelline discovered the true identities of Guiderius and Arviragus, he presented his sons to his subjects by facing the back wall of the stage as if he was standing on a balcony. BAM Harvey theater, with its exposed brick walls and scaffoldings, is an excellent visual analogy for Shakespeare's re-examination of the repertoire of theatrical tricks: disguises, love test, sleep potion, mistaken identities, dream scene, deus ex machina.

I don't know if it's traditional to cast the same person in the roles of Posthumus and Cloten, but the choice of Tom Hiddleston as both lovers, one heroic, the other clownish, was inspired. The role-switches were utterly convincing, aided by the simple device of a pair of glasses. Pisanio, Posthumus' faithful man, was played with genuine feeling by an adorable blonde called Richard Cant. Both Jodie McNee as Imogen and Guy Flanagan as Iachimo delivered their speeches in a distractingly staccato manner, the former with outsized hand gestures that struck key words out of the ballpark.

Cymbeline by William Shakespeare
Cheek by Jowl

Directed by Declan Donnellan
Designed by Nick Omerod

Queen--Gwendoline Christie
Posthumus/Cloten--Tom Hiddleston
Imogen--Jodie McNee
Cymbeline--David Collings
Pisanio--Richard Cant
Iachimo--Guy Flanagan
Caius Lucius--Laurence Spellman
Cornelius--Jake Harders
Helen--Lola Peploe
Belarius--Ryan Ellsworth
Guideruis--John Macmillan
Arviragus--Daniel Percival


Greg said...

Your take on Imogen mis-recognizing the dead body is great - illuminating & right, I believe. hadn't thought of that before, & it adds to my appreciation & understanding of the play - thanks.

In response to you considering Shakespeare alongside your "Head" poem expressing hope, I have this to say - you're alive, he's dead; your poetry is hopeful regardless of the old play.

Jee Leong Koh said...

Ha, Greg,
in the agon against Shakespeare, the one advantage on my side is he's dead and cannot write any more.