No doubt, if William Shakespeare were writing today, he'd be signed to HBO.
Certainly, Cymbeline has enough beauties, battles and beheadings to be adapted into a fine cable television series, a potential cross-over hit that could tap into the audiences of both Game of Thrones and Rome.
Indeed, the only problem with watching this late play of Shakespeare's onstage is that its labyrinthine, fantasy-novel plot might actually be better served out that way – an hour a night with occasional recaps – rather than as a three-hour marathon.
Antoni Cimolino, incoming artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, has taken on the challenge and staged a clear and coherent, if somewhat exhausting production on the catwalk stage of the Tom Patterson Theatre.
Cymbeline (played by reliable festival stalwart Geraint Wyn Davies), an early British king who reigned around the time of the birth of a superstar named Jesus Christ, is a secondary character in the play, but he gets the opening moment onstage here. “You do not meet a man but frowns,” he says, stealing the first line of the play from an unnamed gentleman.
Then he hops into a four-poster bed, is mobbed by all the characters of the play, and pulled backstage as he cries for his daughter Innogen.
It's a striking opening image in a story full of bed tricks and bizarre dreams – but if Cimolino means to suggest that what follows is all the king's nightmare, it is never followed up.
The play's heroine shows up shortly thereafter: Innogen, played here by an alternatively steely and swooning Cara Ricketts. This virtuous and loyal princess is in love with Posthumus (a quivering Graham Abbey), who at the start of the play is banished from the kingdom due to machinations by Cymbeline's scheming Queen/Innogen's evil stepmother (Yanna McIntosh).
Flash forward to Rome, where Posthumus makes a wager that Innogen is the truest lady in the world with an Italian seducer named Iachimo, played by Tom McCamus, essentially reprising his rakish role from Dangerous Liaisons.
When Iachimo returns from a trip to Britain with convincing circumstantial evidence that he has bedded Innogen, a heartbroken Posthumus sends his servant Pisanio (Brian Tree) to murder his once true love – which makes him just an inch more fickle and cloddish than Claudio in Much Ado About Nothing.
Pisanio, like the huntsman in Snow White, simply can't follow these orders, however – and he ends up helping Innogen fleeing into the wilderness disguised as a boy.
If this all seems a tad complicated, well, Cymbeline only gets more plot-heavy from there on in with secret potions imbibed, the discovery of princes living in a cave and an climactic battle between shirtless Britons and a legion of well-armed Romans come to tame the rebellious colony (thrillingly staged by fight director Todd Campbell).
The limitations of the Tom Patterson stage make most Shakespeare productions there look pretty much the same, especially since designers always try to make up for a lack of sets by weighing the actors down with period costumes.
Cimolino does make a couple of adventurous experiments with sound – Iachimo's whispers are amplified for his scene in the bedchamber, for example – and he paints an impressive picture in the second half near the end.
An aquila, the Roman standard shaped like an eagle, is carried down the stage by a legion just moments before the god Jupiter appears in the sky (in a dream of Posthumus's) astride a giant, animatronic eagle pointing in the same direction.
Cimolino's production could use a few more such enlivening visual moments. For the most part, he takes the text at face value, does little to smooth over its strange twists in style and lets his cast go about their business.
The true ensemble work that results is a mixed blessing – there are no standout, adventurous performances, but no weak ones either.
Rickett's Innogen becomes interesting once she loses her illusions and acquires an edge, but the bad guys are the most fun to watch. McIntosh gets to show her claws as the bad queen, while a grinning, neanderthal Mike Shara hams it up enjoyably as the moronic prince Cloten.
In smaller parts, long-time company member Peter Hutt brings Doctor Cornelius to dotty life, while relative newcomer E.B. Smith makes an impression as the earnest, noble caveman Guiderius.
- Written by William Shakespeare
- Directed by Antoni Cimolino
- Starring Cara Ricketts, Graham Abbey
- At the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ont.
Cymbeline runs at Stratford’s Tom Patterson Theatre until Sept. 30.