When Cymbeline was first published in Shakespeare’s 1623 Folio, it was classified as a tragedy, I am informed by my battered old copy of The Riverside Shakespeare, which categorizes the play as a romance. I have always thought of it as more of a comedy (albeit a dark one, with war and death). But there you go. Cymbeline is tough to nail down, and sometimes grouped with Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays. It is certainly ambitious, and complex, even convoluted. And it is one of Shakepeare’s less commonly read and performed works.
Vancouver’s Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, which marks its 25th season this year, has staged Cymbeline only once before, in 2002. This year it returns in a wildly satisfying production directed by Anita Rochon and brought to life by some mind-bogglingly good performances.
One of the Bard’s later plays, Cymbeline incorporates many familiar Shakespearean elements: a disloyal wife; a secret marriage of desperate young lovers; a dose of poison that is really a sleeping potion; supposed peasants who are in fact royalty; a heroine disguised as a boy.
Cymbeline, the play’s namesake, is king of the Britons. A widower, he has married a woman who has designs on his daughter, Imogen, as a wife for her boorish son, Cloten (rhymes with “rotten”). But Imogen has secretly married Posthumus, whom the king banishes because he considers him unsuitable for his daughter. In Italy, Posthumus meets Iachimo, who bets Posthumus that he can seduce Imogen, of whose beauty and fidelity he has been boasting. Back in Britain, the vile Iachimo tries to seduce Imogen, but fails. He hides in her bedchamber and uses what he discovers there to make Posthumus believe Imogen was unfaithful. This sets the plot further in motion.
Rochon, who was chosen by 2010 Siminovitch Prize-winning director Kim Collier to receive the Protégé prize, has taken a difficult play and made it accessible, lively and a load of fun. In her director’s notes, Rochon writes that the show “intentionally puts the focus on the versatility of the performers and celebrates overt theatricality.”
Indeed. We have an ensemble of seven performers playing 18 roles – not simply for matters of economics, but also for theatrics.
Anton Lipovetsky – whose performance is spectacular – plays three key roles: Posthumus, Cloten and Arviragus (who believes he is the son of Belarius, but is really one of the very young sons snatched from Cymbeline years earlier). For a scene in which both Cloten and Posthumus appear, Rochon concocts very clever staging – not simply to facilitate the fact that one actor is cast in two roles, but to play with it. And in the final scene, Lipovetsky transforms, superhero-like, from Posthumus to Arviragus repeatedly, sending the audience into appreciative hysterics. (This threatened to send the play into the direction of farce, but it was so much fun, I decided not to be bothered too much.)
Rachel Cairns is also a standout; her Imogen is strong and determined while also soft and vulnerable. In intimate moments, we could read the agony on her face, and see the tears fall from her eyes. She is also very, very funny.
Casting a man, Shawn Macdonald, as the queen is an interesting decision. In lesser hands, this could have come off as an easy play for laughs. But Macdonald (who also plays Belarius) masters it, with a, well, queeny performance that delighted the audience.
Bob Frazer is fabulously creepy as Iachimo (he also has two other minor roles). The scene in which Iachimo emerges from a trunk in Imogen’s bedroom as she sleeps is a triumph; his wickedness is palpable. This set piece is enhanced by Pam Johnson’s scenic design – his dark villainy a terrific contrast to Imogen’s soft white bedding – and Benjamin Elliott’s exceptional sound design. During this scene, Elliott, who also has several roles (and, as always, is a delight), played accordion on a bench at the back of the stage, providing a subtle, ominous live soundtrack.
Throughout the play, actors not employed in a scene remained at the back of the stage – playing an instrument, or simply watching the action. It was a nice bit of staging, and who could blame them? This is a production you don’t want to miss a minute of.