Cymbeline -Marriage/Fidelity/War. (Theatre Review)
Secret House Theatre Company
The Depot Theatre 5-15 October
(At the time of publishing this review, the production run is over. You can read more about it here.)
The issue of female fidelity rides high in Cymbeline, exemplified in the actions of Imogen and Cymbeline’s unnamed Queen. Fallen out of favour these days, with comic elements emphasised, the gender bending role transference imposed by Sean O’Riordan’s direction on second tier characters’ highlights some of Cymbeline’s oddities, but like Marat/Sade a couple of kilometres away at New theatre, leaves one with the impression the irony possible in gender bending has leaned toward the PC rather than making its own statement. Watching this well produced version of Cymbeline, one is excited by the idea of a very male Imogen and a very female Posthumus and the inherent playfulness one can bring to the study when a warrior woman brags about the fidelity of her monarch husband. That would be a boast worth making indeed.
(see note below)
But Imogen’s fidelity, as imagined by Shakespeare – that is the fidelity of a female – extends beyond her premarital state, for Imogen has bartered away her father’s good favour, which holds more power than her fidelity. Chastity in a female was not only tied to virginity, it was a thing she carried through her married life also and for Shakespeare always connected to survival and wisdom. She was not only to be faithful in marriage, but to hide her lust, acting as a beacon of chastity. Imogen marries to escape the ridiculous Cloten, and considering she is doomed to a false fidelity either way, it can be argued she married to escape rather than out of love. When her husband is banished, she hides away in her room to pine for him (as per social requirement) and again, it is only when her life is threatened does she leave and take action. Female fidelity is wielded by Imogen. She takes control of the very little power she has.
Still, Sean O’Riordan does make a sturdy play for women in male roles, particularly with casting Alison Benstead as Arviragus, Keturah Sheen as Guiderius and Romney Stanton as Pisanio. The women do a great job and are particularly convincing in their roles. Equally, Roger Smith is a strong and vulnerable presence as King Cymbeline and Celia Kelly a regal conniver as his unnamed Queen. All the cast are emphatic, playful and delightfully engaged and promote strong connection with the sometimes tricky language that can plunge an audience into the historical horror of misspent school days.
Sean O’Riordan styled Cymbeline around a kind of Game of Thrones aesthetic, and while I normally don’t take much to that kind of thinking, its remarkably successful in this version. The play lends itse;f to some creative cutting and churning and a stage full of enthusiastic performers bringing us up to speed on the events we don’t witness works better than expected. The pace as gripping, while the narrative remained true. Perhaps this is a good way to look at Shakespeare in the future, as a kind of TV writer? Why not, it works well in this version of Cymbeline.
A special shout out must be made regarding Angelika Nieweglowski’s costuming. The crate set design set isn’t quite as effective but her costumes are provocative, beautiful and thrilling to look at.
For the most part, I feels a little disingenuous to single out one performer in the cast, because everyone does a great job. It’s getting harder and harder these days for the theate community to warrant performing a Shakespeare to the broader world, but this production of Cymbeline justifies our love. If there is a criticism, a slightly longer run would have been great. It would be lovely to see Imogen studied for her mood changes, responses to her father and progressive actions in the way, say Hamlet has been scrutinised, but Cymbeline (perhaps because Imogen is so complicated) is not a Shakespeare we get to see often, which is why a longer run might have been advantageous. This version of it brings it to powerful life and makes us want more in a world where we can feel like we get too much.
(If it wold have been nice to see a properly identified “male” subject play Imogen, it would also have been interesting to see Marat and Sade played by males if all the inmates of the asylum were Muslim females in headdress. Marat/Sade and Cymbeline take some steps to play with gender identity, but they remain safe behind the walls of the easily identified points of political correctness. The pedantry of The Old Fitz’s Don’t Look Back in Anger could have been alleviated from its suffocating nostalgia by an all-female (feminist cis or trans) cast. We have the social permissions in theatre – take some leaps and use them. There are many points to be made with race and sexuality, and texts can be called to judgment, or examined in deeper ways by playing with writers’ intentions and/or with audience comfort levels or expectations. This helps us examine contemporary questions without the anaemia of leftist pandering. I acknowledge that Belvoir’s Hedda Gabler tried this, but again, kept the controversy contained within the safety of Political Correctness and left itself open to accusations of pandering.)