Cymbeline, directed by Melly Still, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, 27 July 2016, right stalls.

Par Stéphanie Mercier
Publication en ligne le 05 septembre 2016

Texte intégral

1Why a queen and not a king Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) ? Still’s stated answer was that a Wicked Queen/Innocent Princess trope was too narrow an interpretation of Shakespeare’s original story and that having a female ruler would invest the play with a heightened, because maternal, concern for both her children and her country. In this confused sex, drink and drug-filled dystopian world the re-gendering did not, however, allow for any greater connection with either Cymbeline’s children or the audience. In fact, directive choices all-through distanced the spectators from what would possibly be imagined as the play’s original message. And, if Shakespeare’s use of history was originally designed to leave sufficient distance for his contemporaries with which to view the instability inherent to their British Isles, this depiction of national (dis)unity did nothing to transcend the current traumas of the Brexit referendum – to which the programme made explicit reference, in what seemed an attempt to shoe-horn Shakespeare into social-political relevance.

2 Admittedly, the issues of wardship and searching for a sense of self, and others, were made clear from the outset. A huge video of Cymbeline, her imagined dead first husband and two lost children (Guideria, Natalie Simpson, and Arviragus, James Cooney) took up the whole backdrop to the stage. Enclosed by four vertical wires, Innogen (Bethan Cullinane) –imprisoned for marrying the inferior royal ward Posthumus Leonatus (very well interpreted in the production I saw by the part’s understudy Romayne Andrews) – stood on a centre-stage tree-stump that had seemingly up-rooted the stage. She watched her mother Cymbeline (although a warrior queen, already in a semi-drugged state) seat herself while the disappearance tale was told, complete with a projected family portrait and missing children newspaper headers. The desolation expressed both by the characters and the set – the lopped tree, the backstage graffiti-covered (“Bleed yourself like we bleed every day” or “Remember how it was”) steps or the patchwork “upcycled” costumes from sacks and table cloths including martial wear, combat gear and Innogen’s torn petticoat skirt that evoked civilians caught in crossfire – were, if not explicit, clearly reminiscent of war narratives between the time the play was set and now and managed to positioned the tale in a specific symbolic locus that it would have been pertinent to pursue throughout. The production, however, seemed determined to diversify its representative span to embrace as many visual motifs as possible, unfortunately losing the verbal power of the play’s language as it did so.

3Paying attention to the musical accompaniment to the songs included in the text was also at once exerting and disturbing as far as the characters’ spoken lies were concerned. Cloten’s (the half-cast actor Marcus Griffiths) act 2, scene 3 “my sweet lady arise” song, after overstressing the word play on “fingers” and “penetrate her” showed him as a caricature of an African Soul singer complete with sexually implicit self-rubbing and a pole-type dance on one of the wires surrounding the tree stump. In a similar manner, the act 4, scene 2 “Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun” lament was Disneyfied to the extent that it provoked very little emotion other than that of a sickliness motivated by the campfire-like sing-a-long atmosphere beside the sight of Cloten’s headless body that had been positioned next to that of Innogen. Worst of all, Posthumus’s act 5, scene 4 dream of Jupiter, which should be, according to Shakespeare, accompanied by “solemn music”, became reminiscent of a drum and smoke-filled musical comedy (albeit with some harpsichord) worthy of the modern-day West End. Further, cut-out paper figures floated down on stage and were held up and moved around by other members of the cast to purportedly remind Posthumus of his estranged family. Yet, as the flimsy outlines were initially blustered around by wind machines positioned in the wings that obstructed sightlines, the impact of the subsequent strange marionette-like show taking place on stage was lessened, if not obscured completely.

4Moreover, the production’s mise-en-scene too often verged on different stereotypes that the play’s direction had ostensibly shied from and had proactively pushed away in the gender reversal device. Costume (Sam Pickering) exemplified the problems this Cymbeline had in avoiding becoming a farce instead of the intricately nuanced Romance Shakespeare most probably destined it to be. The Duke (James Clyde), dressed in a thirties three-piece-suit, because of the now well-known film noir husband-trying-to-kill-his-(wealthy)-wife trope, became a cliché from a psychological thriller such as Hitchock’s Dial M for Murder. Similarly, the production also bore a distinct resemblance to a Shakespeare-for-teens adaptation. The tacky decadence of its “Rome”, complete with singing sparkly bolero, pirate scarf or Jean-Paul Gaultier stripy blue and white jumper and deck trouser wearing partygoers, swilling on wine or gin bottles, for instance, definitely bought the gaudy overly lit party scene in Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet to mind. Especially so, as the set included a religious statue with a neon halo and speech in Italian or Latin with surtitles. This was obviously aimed at creating a cosmopolitan experience but it simply distracted and distanced audience members from the main action because they had the added work of listening as well as looking two ways to follow the plot. Innogen in her act 1, scene 7 bedchamber also jarred with the professed un-stereotypical feminist slant to the production. The overstressed undressing or extremely skimpy nightclothes that she made great business of covering up upon the entrance of Iachimo (Oliver Johnstone) was an overall exacting process, especially for Cullinane, whose otherwise merit-worthy performance became overly obsessed with visual details in this instance – swamping or making exhaustedly shrill a verbal delivery that was belittled as a consequence.


Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC

Foreground Innogen (Bethan Cullinane), background (Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) The Duke (James Clyde)

5Perhaps the most forceful failure of the frequent connection with costume and the plotline was Posthumus’s dressing in Cymbeline’s reddened petticoat (the “bloody cloth” of act 5, scene 1) as if of proof of her faithfulness, to prepare with the battle with Britain’s enemy. The “fashion less without” line was given extra visual weight here by Posthumus looking down at the underskirt – raising a laugh as it did so. Then, just after the victorious battle with the Romans, prisoners were brought on, chained and with Abu Ghraib-style hoods on. The symbol fell completely flat, however, because it came only a few minutes after what had been turned into a joke about underwear. This is just one example of how the production ultimately became an “impossible heap” of iconic references piled on each other in an indiscriminate Beckettian Endgame style. Indeed, and on the contrary, in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline there is a denouement, including over thirty pieces of new information for the characters in the final scene. Even this was derided here though as many of the possibly imagined as joyful revelations – Cymbeline’s astonished “Does the world go round ?” or Belarius’s (Graham Turner) altruistic if exculpatory “There was our error” – merely being snickered at instead of providing a shared sense of catharsis among the protagonists, and the audience.

6As some of the Romans still sat around the stage with their black hoods on, one indeed wondered if even any diplomatic brotherhood and forgiveness had been achieved by the end of the play. Yet, does the potential dis-unification of the British Isles in the wake of the Brexit referendum mean that Cymbeline should henceforth only be stage produced as if on a soap box or as a symbol-play and a political standard bearer ? This seemed, unfortunately, to be the ultimate motivation pushing this particular production. As a result, the single-minded “presentist” urge to encourage national, and European, amalgamation painfully ignored other issues the play raises. These include the importance of responsibility and parental protection, coming of age or the adoption of coping strategies after the loss of a family member or faith in a partner – crises of more personal importance and yet that are nonetheless probed, and ultimately resolved, by the playwright. Perhaps, if this production had concentrated more on the speech and less on spectacle, it could have better heard all Shakespeare was trying to say.

Pour citer ce document

Par Stéphanie Mercier, «Cymbeline, directed by Melly Still, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford, 27 July 2016, right stalls.», Shakespeare en devenir [En ligne], N°9 - Saison 2016-2017, L'Oeil du Spectateur, Adaptations scéniques de pièces de Shakespeare et de ses contemporains, mis à jour le : 05/09/2016, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Stéphanie Mercier

Stephanie Mercier holds a B. A. Hons. in French and Economics from the University College of North Wales and a Master in English Studies from Poitiers University. She is a professeur agrégé who gives Science-Politiques and French Business School entrance exams preparatory English classes and who also teaches English to Theatre and Film Studies undergraduate students and undergraduate-level Translation, when applied to the economic environment. As a mature student, she is completing her PhD : “Th ...