Joho the BlogCymbeline: Shakespeare's worst play (Or: Lordy, I hope there's a tape) - Joho the Blog

Cymbeline: Shakespeare’s worst play (Or: Lordy, I hope there’s a tape)

The hosts of the BardCast podcast consider Cymbeline to probably be Shakespeare’s worst play. Not enough happens in the first two acts, the plot is kuh-razy, it’s a mishmash of styles and cultures, and it over-explains itself time and time again. That podcast is far from alone in thinking that it’s the Bard’s worst, although, as BardCast says, even the Bard’s worst is better than just about anything. Nevertheless, when was the last time you saw a performance of Cymbeline? Yeah, me neither.

We saw it yesterday afternoon, in its final performance at Shakespeare & Co in Lenox, Mass. It was fantastic: hilarious, satisfactorily coherent (which is praiseworthy because the plot is indeed crazy), and at times moving.

It was directed by the founder of the company, Tina Packer, and showed her usual commitment to modernizing Shakespeare by finding every emotional tone and every laugh in the original script. The actors enunciate clearly, but since we modern folk don’t understand many of the words and misunderstand more than that, the actors use body language, cues, and incredibly well worked out staging to make their meaning clear. We used to take our young children to Shakespeare & Co. shows, and they loved them.

I’m open to being convinced by a Shakespeare scholar that the Shakespeare & Co.’s Cymbeline was a travesty that had nothing to do with Shakespeare’s intentions, even though the players said all the words he wrote and honored the words’ magnificence. I’m willing to acknowledge that, for example, when Imogen and King Cymbeline offer each other words of condolence about the death of the wicked, wicked queen, Shakespeare didn’t think they’d wait a beat and then burst out laughing. But when Posthumus comes before the King at the end, bemoaning the death of his beloved Imogen, I would not be surprised if Shakespeare were to nod in appreciation as in this production the audience bursts into loud laughter because Imogen, still in disguise as a boy, is scrambling towards Posthumus, gesticulating ever more wildly that she is in fact she for whom he mourns. Did Shakespeare intend that? Probably not. Does it work? One hundred percent.

These two embellishments are emblematic of the problem with the play. In that final scene, it is revealed to the King in a single speech that the Queen he has loved for decades in fact always hated him, tried to poison him, and was a horrible, horrible person. There’s little or nothing in the play that explains how the King could not have had an inkling of this, and he seems to get over the sudden revelation of his mate’s iniquity in a heartbeat so that the scene can get on with its endless explication. The laugh he shares with his daughter gets a huge laugh from the audience, but only because the words of sorrow Shakespeare gives the King and Imogen seem undeserved for a Queen so resolutely evil; the addition of the laugh solves a problem with the script. Likewise, Imogen’s scramble toward Posthumus, waving her arms in a “Hey, I’m right here!” gesture, turns Posthumus’ mournful declaration of his devastation at the death of Imogen into comic over-statement.

To be clear, most of the interpretations seem to bring Shakespeare’s intentions to life, even if unexpected ways. For example, Jason Aspry’s Cloten was far different from the thuggish and thoroughly villainous character we expected. Asprey played him hilariously as a preening coward. This had me concerned because I knew that he is killed mid-play in a fight with the older of two young princes who have been brought up in a cave. (It’s a weird plot.) How can the prince kill such an enjoyable buffoon without making us feel like someone casually shot Capt. Jack Sparrow halfway through the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie? But the staging and the acting is so well done that, amazingly, the biggest laugh of the show came when the prince enters the stage holding Cloten’s severed head. (Don’t judge me. You would have laughed, too.)

So, this may well be Shakespeare’s worst play. If so, it got a performance that found everything good in it, and then some.

 


 

I do want to at least mention the brilliance and commitment of the actors. Some we have been seeing every summer for decades, and others are new or newer to us. But this is an amazing group. Among the cast members who were new to us, Ella Loudon was amazing as the older prince. I feel bad singling anyone out, but, there, I did it.

 


 

Finally, Shakespeare & Co. doesn’t post videos of performances of their plays after they’ve run. It makes me heartsick that they do not. I’ve asked them about this in past, and apparently the problem is with the actors’ union. I was brought up in a pro-union household and continue to be favorably inclined toward them, but I wish there were a way to work this out. It’d be good for the world to be able to see these exceptional performances and come to love Shakespeare.
It would of course also be good for Shakespeare & Co.

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