Wednesday, 11 May 2016

But time hath nothing blurr’d those lines of favour…

Bethan Cullinane (Innogen); Gillian Bevan (Cymbeline); James Clyde (The Duke) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

Preview: Monday, 2 May 2016
Even at a quarter of an hour over the advertised “approximate performance time” – coming in at three hours and forty minutes in total (including the interval) – it still felt as if we were being accelerated towards Shakespeare’s most convoluted finale, pell-mell: yet, unfortunately, fuelled mostly by a mixture of craftiness and contrivance. I thus left the RSC’s Cymbeline (for the first time) with a bum absent of all feeling; a heart in pretty much the same state; but a mind replete with “The fierce disputes ’twixt virtue and desire”.

I understand that there were refunds issued on the night of the first preview (29 April 2016): as dress and/or tech rehearsals had not been completed. I am not surprised. There is – and you can lay the blame for some of this at Will’s feet; although most on the over-complicated production and design (see below) – one heckuva lot going on. Movement (directed by Emily Mytton) must have been a nightmare in itself; never mind the use of a rare (at the RSC, anyhow) followspot for the frequent asides, and accompanying rapid (albeit sometimes tardy) lighting changes (designed by Philip Gladwell).

Talking of tech, the ghost/dream scene felt like something from Play School, I’m afraid; and was not helped by three large illuminated fan-cum-smoke machines (and associated cabled mess) being clumsily manoeuvred onto the stage. As to their purpose, well, who knows? To me – especially as one of these infernal contraptions was very close to my seat (ruining both my view and my comprehension) – they represented the overall clunkiness of the staging (and left me with a feeling that we, the audience, are assumed to be a little slow: and therefore need things spelling out for us…).

The main problem with this play is not so much that the plot is silly, but that there is far too much of it. As a consequence, Shakespeare has to spend a disproportionate amount of time in explaining the plot to the audience; and that, in itself, draws attention to the absurdities. And furthermore, the explanations of the sheer mechanics of the plot result in some very awkward passages. The very opening scene, for instance, is about as crude a piece of expository writing as one would find anywhere in dramatic literature. Throughout, there are explanatory asides; and Belarius at one point is given a long soliloquy that has absolutely no purpose other than to fill in the audience on his story. Shakespeare must have realised that things were going a bit wrong: it is very noticeable that in the two plays that followed, he thinned down the plot considerably.
– The Argumentative Old Git: The Bardathon: 30 – Cymbeline

I had initially wanted to see Cymbeline because of the infrequency/irregularity of its staging; and, having pored over it – and it is actually a damnably good read… – was amused by the humour, and intrigued by both the beauty and complexity of the language – as well as its obvious experimental, self-referential nature.

We used to classify Shakespeare’s dramas as comedy, tragedy, or history – but this is none of these things. It is a quasi-historical “late romance” – in much the same way that King Lear could be said to be a quasi-historical tragedy… – both viewed, though, I feel, through extremely world-weary goggles…. It could also quite easily be played for laughs: if we accept it as “Shakespearean self-parody” (and I am allowed to play Cloten’s sardonic Second Lord (here, the wonderful Theo Ogundipe; accompanied by the equally wonderful Romayne Andrews as First Lord)).

I could not envisage, though, how on earth it should be performed, pragmatically… – my only tentative solutions being either an audience high, en masse, on some illicit substance: rendering the whole thing an hallucinatory trip, a dream… where sense is not prioritized, nor even requisite… – or an intelligent substantial editing: as with the current run of Doctor Faustus.

That this production veers more towards the fantastic former is probably a positive. In doing so – if it achieves anything… – it (just about) makes sense of Shakespeare’s most bonkers muddle of multiple plot-strands (whereas removing chunks of text would probably have been “As slippery as the Gordian knot was hard!”).

I obviously cannot say, though, whether Will was simply taking the piss – “a deliberate pastiche” – having had to rush something out “possibly to be performed on the occasion of the investiture of the Prince of Wales in 1610”; or if he was trying to compile a drama mishmashing the ‘greatest hits’ of all his previous tropes (e.g. cross-dressing; resurrection; violence; invasion… – I could go on, and on, and on…).

For this, I think he looked back on his comedies as much as he did to the tragedies. Of course, Posthumus’ murderous jealousy may remind us of Othello, and Iachimo’s villainy may remind us of Iago; but Imogen setting out on her own in time of adversity reminds us of Rosalind, of Viola, and even, perhaps, of Julia in The Two Gentlemen of Verona; and, more especially it reminds us of Helena in All’s Well that Ends Well, that strange fairy-tale like work written while Shakespeare was concerned mainly with tragic affairs. Indeed, looking through the entire body of Shakespeare’s work, All’s Well That Ends Well seems to me to be a sort of link between the world of the comedies and that of these late works. I get the impression that even when Shakespeare was creating his great tragic dramas, his ever-restless mind, constantly darting, like Hamlet’s, to newer ideas, was already forming and imagining a new artistic vision.
– The Argumentative Old Git: The Bardathon: 30 – Cymbeline

Perhaps, for a Jacobean audience, such rhymes and reasons resonated more easily when mounted; and Will’s points were more sharply made; his machinations more obvious…? (Whatever my misgivings, in performance, the play does have its admirers.) In this production, though, too many things simply felt too laboured – taken far too literally; far too seriously – for me to feel much love for it.

Why, for instance, is the trademark sumptuous language translated into Latin, Italian and French – which many in the audience then cannot see in the original English: projected as it is onto an overly-complicated mechanical set, at the very back of the stage? (Is such convolution a response to other directors’ misguided attempts to ‘simplify’ the poetry…?) And why the jingoistic projection of the Union Jack and the Flag of Europe at the end? We have been preached at enough in the programme for us not to realize the political driving force behind the whole shebang. (If we did not have the brains to wade through the previous two-hundred-plus minutes, why must our intelligence be then so insulted?)

As with all worthwhile fairy-tales, though, any visible merriment is merely an unstable oil-slick floating on a deep lagoon of pain and darkness. It does not take much force, much of a splash, to reveal the terrors beneath. “It is only a game… to die will be an awfully big adventure.”

And why did the design (by Anna Fleischle) feel more like (the above) Wendy and Peter Pan-style pyrotechnics rather than Shakespearean subtleties? I understand that this is a fable, a “fairy-tale” – the text, for me, contains little of the depth of, say, King Lear or The Tempest… – or even A Midsummer Night’s Dream… – but I do not believe that this justifies such overblown artifice: especially the constant haunting(?) presence of Philharmonia (the graceful Temi Wilkey) – “a soothsayer” (who actually only appears in two scenes in the original text…) – which serves merely to distract: especially in ‘private’ scenes, where only we, the audience, are supposed to be the onlookers. (Are we always inside her dream? Or is this some indication that we should see her sprighting as proof of manipulation, or of an engineered tragedy…?)

Finally, although I am a fan of (rational) gender‑swapping in Shakespeare… – sometimes it can reveal real depths that, otherwise, may be murky, at best; invisible, at worst… – here it neither adds nor subtracts. It simply is. I am therefore unsure, again, as to what it is meant to imply or achieve.

Hiran Abeysekera (Posthumus); Bethan Cullinane (Innogen) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

That I only felt sympathy for minor(ish) characters – and those, ostensibly, who were ‘on the wrong side’ (certainly of Cymbeline, herself – here a queen: played with authority by Gillian Bevan… – if not of morality) also threw me. I found Innogen (Bethan Cullinane), who has 17% of the total number of lines, rendered a little petulant and spoilt (and thus, in no way, the ideal Renaissance Woman she is sometimes held up to be); and Posthumus Leonatus (Hiran Abeysekera; 12%) overwrought – “his absence from the middle of the play may be considered a blessing” – and not a little hammy. (That the two deserved each other seems just; but their reunion had the emotional impact of a damp haddock straight to the mush. (Give me Rosalind and Orlando, any day.))

James Clyde (The Duke); Gillian Bevan (Cymbeline) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

As a key part of a talented and generally well-founded company, though, Kelly Williams shone brightly as Pisania, Posthumus’ servant (more loyal, deservingly, though, to Innogen); and had believable gravity. Oliver Johnstone was also extremely impressive as the scheming Iachimo – and the scene where he steals around the sleeping Innogen was the most moving of the night (although probably for all the wrong reasons). His remorse and repentance feel true – he is more complex than we are initially led to believe.

Oliver Johnstone (Iachimo) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

I also rather liked James Clyde as Cymbeline’s second husband… – here was a textbook wicked ‘stepmother’: snide and charming; cunning and manipulative; and with a wicked glint in those wide eyes that, you might have thought, would have betrayed his plans to anyone with an ounce of wit! “So, so. Well done, well done.”

Romayne Andrews (First Lord); Marcus Griffiths (Cloten); Theo Ogundipe (Second Lord); with Bethan Cullinane (Innogen), front – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

Marcus Griffiths – of course… – was the perfect swaggering puttock, Cloten. He brings immense physical presence, charisma and wit to any rôle he plays; and I felt rather sorry for his gruesome demise (although immensely impressed by the RSC Workshops’ personation of his severed bonce… – I half expected it to wink and grin, it was so lifelike)! The fact that he was so much taller than Posthumus – whose clothes were therefore a remarkably bad fit – was the best (short) running joke of the performance; and Griffiths played it just the right side of farce.

For me, Graham Turner, as Belarius, was the star of the night, though: empathetic but powerful; loving and loved; forgiving and forgiven. Every word, every gesture, every emotion, was deeply thought and portrayed. An admixture of Duke Senior and Jaques, he often seems to be the only sincere, reverent person on stage (apart from perhaps the charismatic Byron Mondahl as Philario – also, rightfully, understudying Turner… – who, it turns out, has a beautiful baritone singing voice). Belarius is certainly the moral centre of all this mayhem….

There were not enough laughs, though – not (even) for a Shakespearean tragedy…. Not the fault of the audience: as I do not feel those jokes so evident in the script – although the language can be knotty at times… – were communicated that well.

Graham Turner (Belarius); Natalie Simpson (Guideria); James Cooney (Arviragus); with Bethan Cullinane (Innogen), front – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

Overall, it certainly felt like a preview – which is very unusual for the RSC: these first performances are usually born fully-formed and mature. It also did not resonate with the usual, high, RSC quality. [Pop next door, to the Swan, to delight in such… – both Doctor Faustus and Don Quixote are quite stunning, in their different ways… – as, I’m sure, The Alchemist, with the same company, is also bound to be. (There are many reasons why I prefer the older theatre….)]

I will – as is my wont – be back, though, soon (in a couple of days, in fact), to see if changes have been made; to witness any (crossing my fingers) improvements; to see if it makes more sense on‑stage, next time around. Captions (at my final viewing, in a month or so) may also help, of course – although, if there is one thing I took away from the night, it was the clarity of delivery. Even with my duff hearing – and some interference, in the silences, with the induction loop (possibly caused by my sitting immediately next to the sound control booth) – I could follow a great deal of the dialogue: and the cast are therefore to be applauded soundly for this.

Hiran Abeysekera (Posthumus), rear; Oliver Johnstone (Iachimo) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

Second coming: Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Well, it finished on time – so that was a plus! (Reputedly, this is because Greg DoranJupiter‑like – descended from on high; complained bitterly about length and quality; and imposed his jus primae noctis, Jack Cade‑style. “Great men have reaching hands; oft have I struck Those that I never saw, and struck them dead.”)

As a result, I thought it flowed much more evenly… – although it still trips and stumbles occasionally like a not-fully-formed thing. The drastic lighting switches – for those plentiful asides – have become more ‘relaxed’ (yet terribly – and distractingly – inconsistent): and the cast also appear more at ease. Additionally, all those long expository speeches, somehow, seem more comprehensible. The production therefore feels more whole; more accomplished.

Are we there yet? Not really. (In fact, if you want evidence of this, then the equally distracting gentleman – an/the assistant director? – in the stalls, downstage right, with a clipboard and his own personal spotlight, taking copious notes, shows, I feel, that we’re still in preview mode… – just paying for full-price tickets…!)

To be honest, I’m not quite sure what – if any – cuts have been made: it just felt – inexplicably, and not a little counterintuitively – tighter; but a lot less rushed. (One of the changes I did notice was the lovely Natalie Simpson, as the savage Polydore, now reciting the first verse of Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun – which helped excise the famous Finzi melody from my mind. This was a moving moment of great stillness… – of which there are not enough….)

I still don’t like many of the gimmicks (although the apparitions seemed a little less clumsy (this may be subjective: I may have acclimatized…)); and I still have little sympathy for the two divided lovers. But I did enjoy myself – and am now therefore looking forward, quite eagerly, to the captioned performance I have booked (on 4 June 2016 – when I presume/hope all the technical issues will have finally been eradicated/remedied…)!

Oh, and we had many more laughs – although these were rather inconsistent: as the cast seemed unsure (yet) how to raise them, meaningfully (apart from Griffiths: who is a natural comedian). It’s a long run, though – until 15 October 2016, in Stratford-upon-Avon; and then until 22 December 2016 at the Barbican… – so it should be a cracker, come Christmas!

I am still not utterly convinced that this is remotely close to the/any way to stage Cymbeline, though. It seems far, far too earnest. And fails, partly, from trying too hard to cover all the bases, plot-wise (for which you’d need a thick blanket the size of Warwickshire); and endeavouring to resolve irrational devices with ill-conceived logic. I am also of the opinion that the whole shebang is too design-led (perhaps because of director Melly Still). And, although I originally wrote that “I could not envisage… how on earth it should be performed, pragmatically”, I do now reckon that I would have taken the path of least resistance through the textual complexities: that is, just having the actors; two props (a bed and a box); and a blank canvas. In other words, I would have concentrated on the personal actions, reactions, and interactions – and tried my best to make the stories ‘work’ – and not given a fig about overcomplicating things with chicanery, fancy lighting, nor huge pieces of mobile scenery…. (I know there are twenty-two locations amongst the twenty-seven scenes: but it is never really that clear where we are, from the set design, anyway! (And I’m not sure that it really matters.))

O, what a scene of fool’ry have I seen,
Of sighs, of groans, of sorrow, and of teen!
O me, with what strict patience have I sat,
To see a king transformed to a gnat!
To see great Hercules whipping a gig,
And profound Salomon to tune a jig,
And Nestor play at push-pin with the boys,
And critic Timon laugh at idle toys!
– Shakespeare: Love’s Labour’s Lost (IV.iii.140-147)

Hiran Abeysekera (Posthumus); Bethan Cullinane (Innogen) – photo by Ellie Kurttz/RSC

Pressing on: Tuesday, 10 May 2016
My original plan – under my (probational) agreement with the RSC Press Office – was to hold back the above brace of reviews until after press night: even though I had anticipated that yet more ‘stuff’ would have changed at this date. I knew my comments would therefore be a few days out of sync with this seemingly ever-evolving production: but aimed to opine on such things when I made my final (captioned) visit to the run on 4 June 2016.

However, a £10 ticket offer appeared on the RSC’s Twitter feed! (My Yorkshire blood runs true.) So who am I to resist the temptation of a seat in the centre of the Circle at such a wonderful price?! Especially when it would mean that the final version/section of this post would be consistent with those in the wider media – albeit with added insight (or, at least, context). Additionally, as this performance was to start fifteen minutes earlier than normal, there was a chance I would be home before midnight…! (I was!)

The bad news. It still doesn’t feel at all ‘complete’: although many changes (some major, some minor) have been made – especially with the lighting (including messy mingled spots being replaced by fussy flickering floodlights). However, sadly, there still seems to be no set rule – apart from the other characters going into awkward slow-mo – for all those parenthetical obiter dicta. We also appear to have let some not-very-talented graffiti artists onto the set – probably to remind us that we’re in some sort of bleak, nature-less, “dystopian… not too distant future”. (Oh, I so hate being lectured to…. (Grrr.))

The good news is that the nationalism appears to have been watered down. There also seem to be more pauses (in the right places) and laughs (often in the wrong places; and tonight, frequently led by a discrete (but in no way discreet) bunch of folk to my left… – in fact, it almost felt canned, at times; and the cast did not seem ready for them…). The pace was certainly much better, though – especially in the “convoluted” 3,987‑word, 570‑line, last scene (17% of the total play): although, here, some of the story arcs plummeted to the ground, rather than floating gracefully down (like paper ghosts, perhaps).

Strangely enough, I still rather enjoyed myself; and am grateful, therefore, for the opportunity to witness the play ‘live’. However, I was not transported to another time or place; nor was my belief in any way suspended (tree stump-like, perhaps) at any time… – both of which are my usual instinctive responses to great theatre (and great music). Let’s just say that (damning with faint etc.) this is an ‘interesting’ interpretation – complex, like its many plots – but not one that I found engaging. I was entertained, certainly (which I suspect is many people’s standard reaction to both drama and harmony – not everyone blubs so readily; nor desires to be so immersed…) – but that, obviously, for me, is just nowhere near enough.

I also suspect that my final viewing, in just over three weeks, will be yet more modified. And it is this instability that troubles me most – as I am sure it will others. (As I stated earlier: this “is very unusual for the RSC… performances are usually born fully-formed and mature”.)

Perhaps I am missing something obvious: which is stopping me from ‘connecting’…? Perhaps those laughing so frequently see something I do not…? My all-too-habitual theatre-attending gut says this is not the case, though. And, in a way, if the disappointment is only my personal reaction, then it is a good thing (especially for the RSC). I just suspect my dismay will not be so confined… – and am therefore (if this be the case) surprised (if that be the case) that Doran didn’t intervene earlier. [He was sat a couple of rows in front of me… – but, skilled professional (and genuinely nice guy) that he is, I could not gauge the sincerity of his reaction: his applause and admiration seemed honest and hearty. (But they would, wouldn’t they…?)]

Trying to end on a favourable note, let me spotlight a handful of people I haven’t already singled out. Sound designer Jonathan Ruddick, composer Dave Price, music director Jan Winstone and the other instrumentalists, all deserve medals. The soundtrack fits perfectly; is not overwrought; nor is it overbearing… – it produces an atmosphere that I feel would otherwise be largely absent… – part of which stems from Maria Mealey’s contrabassoon growling, threateningly, at the very bottom of its range: making such a rich (and extremely welcome) contribution. Talking of which… as always, Terry King’s fights are things of balletic beauty and magnificent menace. What would the RSC do without him…?


I have read three hours then. Mine eyes are weak.
Fold down the leaf where I have left. To bed.
Take not away the taper, leave it burning;
And if thou canst awake by four o’ th’ clock,
I prithee call me. Sleep hath seiz’d me wholly.

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