Late Romances Bardathon Weekend: Cymbeline

After heading to the Globe straight from the airport and spending two delightful hours with a friend over lunch (which was actually afternoon tea, with copious sandwiches, scones, and cakes), I entered the Sam Wanamaker indoor theatre for the first of my Shakespeare marathon: Cymbeline.

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For those who have never been to the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, it’s a small, intimate reconstruction of a Jacobean indoor theatre, inspired by Blackfriars theatre that stood on the South Bank in the early seventeenth century. Unlike most of Shakespeare’s earlier work, the four romances were staged indoors, which offered a significantly different experience from the outdoor, open-aired Globe theatre, often calling for a range of special effects that made use of the indoor theatre’s ceiling. While this was my first time stepping inside the Sam Wanamaker, I’d seen a recorded stage production of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi put on by the Globe in 2014–but of course, my live visit was something else altogether. Firstly, since I don’t have the means for high-end tickets, I’d gotten a standing ticket which was in the upper/highest gallery and had quite a restricted view of the stage. I didn’t particularly mind this, since I know Cymbeline and its bits of physical comedy relatively well, but I wouldn’t recommend standing tickets for first-time Shakespearean theatre-goers.

Secondly–and far more importantly–the theatre is visually beautiful, with its gorgeous wood interior, paintwork (especially on the ceilings), and candles. Yup, candles–the entire theatre is lit by dozens of them, propped up in sconces and candelabras alike. This recalls the similarly-lit early modern indoor theatres, and has the capacity to bolster the romances, which often contain a great deal of interaction with light and “magical” special effects.

Which brings me to the Globe’s execution of Cymbeline‘s bedroom scene, wherein Iachimo (Eugene O’Hare) hides under (and later emerges from) Innogen’s (Emily Barber) bed, clearly up to no good. I absolutely loved this indoor, candlelit rendition, where the low-lighting renders Iachimo’s villainy even more sinister and shudder-inducing. I’ve previously seen a sumptuous, Bollywood-inspired rendition of the scene by Phizzical Productions, complete with colourful pillows and bedding, but I much preferred this soft, darkened, super creepy version. It also made me more angry towards both Iachimo and Posthumus (Jonjo O’Neill), because darn it, Innogen is innocent, and ugh why oh why must you men be either conniving or gullible?!

To be fair to Posthumus, Iachimo makes a pretty convincing case, and Posthumus doesn’t rush to conclusions as quickly as Othello, Claudio (Much Ado About Nothing), or Leontes (The Winter’s Tale, which I’m seeing in about an hour). But while I’m continually frustrated and angered by the men’s jealous behaviour in Shakespeare’s plays, I applaud the Bard for inducing these feelings–and, in the case of Posthumus, for also evoking pity, because the poor fellow doesn’t deserve Iachimo’s scheming or his own banishment, just as Innogen doesn’t deserve Posthumus’s response. And therein lies the wonders of Shakespeare: while I don’t condone his reactions and actions, I wholeheartedly sympathise with Posthumus, who, at the end of the day, is only human.

Funnily enough, Posthumus was played by a Belfast actor, and it was pretty surreal stepping off a plane from Belfast into London, only to hear a Belfast accent on stage–gotta love this part of the world! Also of note is Trevor Fox’s wonderful performance of Pisanio, who is easily the play’s most likeable male character.

And of course, there’s the spectacle of a female “Jupiter” descending from the heavens in a smoke-filled “dream” scene, which, while entertaining, did little more than get the audience’s attention for a few minutes. Aristotle was right in his assessment of spectacle as the least important element of tragedy, which I think can be applied to a whole range of theatrical genres.

All in all, while I loved my inaugural experience at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and enjoyed its contribution to the play, I’ve not much else to say about this particular production of Cymbeline, and wouldn’t recommend it to novice Shakespeareans. There were some moments of solid acting and theatre, but ultimately, I was more in love with Shakespeare’s language than with its execution.

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