Stratford Festival’s Shakespeare tradition echoes in the well-told tale of ‘Cymbeline’
By Nancy Malitz
STRATFORD, ONTARIO — Among the treacheries of Shakespeare’s late play “Cymbeline” is the burden of responsibility on a chatty doctor to set up the story for us. What a mind-blowing, intricate job of explanation Peter Hutt delivers as Doctor Cornelius in the first few minutes of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival production, an early highlight of its 2012 summer season.
Part of the reason “Cymbeline” isn’t done more often, apart from the huge cast and extensive costumery it requires, is surely the practical risk of numbing the audience almost before the play starts, as sheer information overload can cause listeners to lose the thread entirely.
But Hutt’s Doctor Cornelius is a master storyteller in love with language. He enthusiastically spins his yarn about a judgmental British king whose two young sons were stolen from their nursery and never found. He takes his time explaining how this king also managed to alienate his only remaining child, a daughter, whose mother died in childbirth. He luxuriates in the wickedness of the king’s current queen, a too clever stepmother who’s a serious student of poisons and intent upon wresting the throne for her son by a previous marriage. And the doctor turns lyrical about a young man, a penniless orphan of noble birth brought up in the king’s household, whom the king’s daughter has determined to marry despite her father’s Lear-like fury.
Done rightly, as it is here, the scene immediately puts us in the grip of a complex story with lots of secrets, and Doctor Cornelius touches only a third of it: The ensuing tale involves not only this knot of castle intrigue, but also some nefarious doings in Italy that threaten the daughter’s honor and safety, and a third complicating plot overlay involving Caesar’s invading army.
“Cymbeline” is the kind of intricate Shakespeare that Stratford does as well as any company in the world.
Directed by Antoni Cimolino on a bare stage with virtuosic lighting (Robert Thomson) and the sparest of props for fleetness of scene change, this is a production peopled with many actors of well-honed skill and poetic poise. There is both comedy and tragedy in their arsenals and deep knowledge of Shakespeare in their memories. In short, they have been brought up in the best Elizabethan theater tradition, and in doing Shakespeare this well, they are translating our own language and inherited wisdom for us, across the centuries.
At the heart of “Cymbeline” is Innogen, the king’s headstrong daughter, whose love for the orphan Posthumus seems natural to most everyone in the court except the king, the queen and her farcically stupid son Cloten. Cara Ricketts is the picture of a petite jeune fille of high spirit, stubborn and completely charming. Graham Abbey, as Posthumus, is at his most convincing in his intimate scenes with her.
Innogen (as current scholarship corrects the name once rendered Imogen) soon endures treachery in the castle and betrayal from afar and is forced into a trouser role to escape death. Here Ricketts becomes equally convincing as a boy. It’s Innogen’s evolving point of view we care about most in this tale, and it’s to Ricketts’ credit that the thoughts and feelings Innogen expresses read searingly pure and unmistakable.
The villains are terrific, too. Yanna McIntosh plays the Queen as a smart conniver who shares her plans with us in soliloquy a la Richard III, like him a fascinating dissembler and just as ruthless.
Tom McCamus is the lecherous Iachimo, who ruins the life of Immogen, a stranger to him, because of a casual bet over her honor. He fakes a win by invading her bedroom secretly to gain evidence. The scene is a surreal masterstroke of direction by Cimolino, undertaken in eerie light and dead-of-night silence, except for Iachimo’s whispers and adrenaline-saturated breathing miked for effect. Thus we’re in Iachimo’s head as McManus, deliciously snakelike, takes his time over the sleeping girl, seeming to toy with the idea of taking her by force until he remembers the money that’s on the line.
Equally impressive is the fierce battle between Caesar’s invading army and the king’s men, who by this point in the play include the banished-yet-loyal Posthumus and two strong rustics about the age of the king’s long-lost sons (E.B. Smith and Ian Lake). Again it’s lighting that emphasizes the terror the arriving Roman column inspires, and the fight itself (brilliantly directed by Todd Campbell) effects great waves of movement, back and forth, as the advantage shifts and shifts again. It’s a credit to Cimolino that he lets key scenes like this, the ones that occur almost between the lines, have the fullness of proportion they demand.
A sprawling play with so much tension and tragedy demands its comic relief, and Shakespeare gives us the Queen’s son, Cloten, a brute so obnoxious you want to knock his block off (oops, spoiler alert!), except that he’s so over-the-top funny. Mike Shara does him to a T as the narcissist-in-beefcake poseur, and as the unknowing butt of jokes by his own entourage on the subject of his body odor and battle-readiness. You’re kind of glad he hangs around as long as he does.
Geraint Wyn Davies, wonderfully raging as the king, is our touching agent for the last part of this story. He’s the dismayed listener who learns what we already know of his tragic mistakes, told in a series of revelations that unravel like a great ball of yarn to his humbled astonishment. Then Shakespeare, in a winking line that let’s us know he’s had his fun, lets the play end while the king’s still getting an earful.
- Performance location, dates and times: Details at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival website
- Read “Cymbeline” online: Go to Gutenberg.org
Photo captions and credits: Top to bottom: Innogen (Cara Ricketts) reads a letter from her forbidden love. King Cymbeline (Geraint Wyn Davies) rules without mercy. The Queen (Yanna McIntosh) schemes for the throne. Innogen (Cara Ricketts) disguises herself as the boy Fidele and is protected by rustics including Arviragus (Ian Lake). The lecherous Iachimo (Tom McCamus) is intent on destroying Innogen’s honor. Cloten, the Queen’s son (Mike Shara), is as dumb as he is arrogant. Below: Rustics led by Belarius (John Vickery) fight against Caesar’s army on behalf of their king. Posthumus (Graham Abbey) and Innogen (Cara Ricketts) affirm their love. (Photos by David Hou)