Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” at Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Usually, when I read a Shakespeare play, I have a pretty good idea in my mind of how I would ideally like to see it staged, what the sets and costumes should look like, where the actors should be positioned, how the lines should be spoken, and so on. These may not necessarily be the best ideas: I’m sure experienced Shakespeare directors understand these matters far better than I do. Nonetheless, I find myself, as it were, directing these plays in my head. Cymbeline, however, is among the exceptions: I have no idea how this should be staged. Despite passages that only Shakespeare could have written, it’s a work that always leaves me puzzled. Maybe Shakespeare just flopped with this one. Alternatively, and more likely, that extraordinary mind of his was working on a plane to which my rather ordinary mind does not have access.

I had never seen the play on stage before last night. The only version I had seen was in the BBC Shakespeare series in the early 1980s – a very accomplished production with a quite magnificent cast, but which left me as puzzled as did my readings. Last night, I went to see the play in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse –  an extension of the Globe Theatre built to emulate the indoor venues in which so many of Shakespeare’s plays had originally been performed.

I am, I admit, very much in two minds when it comes to the issue of “authenticity”. I accept that it is worthwhile to see these plays in spaces similar to those for which they had originally been written – whether in the outdoor Globe Theatre, or, as here, in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Similarly, it is worthwhile hearing the music of Handel or of Bach, of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, played by orchestras of the size the composers would have recognised, playing instruments of the composers’ own time, and adopting performance practices, as far as music scholars can determine, the composers would have been familiar with. But even if we get everything right in terms of authenticity – even if we were to go to the length getting boy actors to play the female roles – there remains one important component that is bound to remain inauthentic: audience expectations. Shakespeare’s audiences were unfamiliar with the drama of Ibsen or of Chekhov; they had not seen television plays, or films: we have. And we cannot unsee them.

In Cymbeline, a character is beheaded just off stage, and soon afterwards, the severed head and the headless corpse are produced. We may only conjecture how Shakespeare’s own audience, used as they were to seeing public beheadings, and accustomed to decapitated heads on public display, would have reacted. In our own age, for most of us, experience of decapitation comes not directly, but from the horrific reports, and, should we choose to look at them, from horrific images, of executions and judicial killings committed in Syria or in Saudi Arabia. When confronted with extreme violence such as this on stage, our minds are as likely to turn to Monty Python and the Holy Grail as to anything else: we see it as “over-the-top”, and find it funny for precisely that reason. I doubt Shakespeare’s own audiences would have reacted in such a manner. No striving for authenticity can re-create in our minds what Shakespeare’s own audiences would have felt.


Nonetheless, it is an interesting experience to see this play in this venue. The hall itself is exquisite, like a bejewelled box. The audience is packed quite close on back-less and handle-less seats, and no-one is very far from the stage: this creates a sense both of intimacy, and of taking part in a communal event. The hall is lit entirely by candles, so variations in lighting can be achieved only by varying the number of candles used for any given scene (thus ruling out sudden or frequent changes); or by adjusting the height of the chandeliers. Needless to say, there were no sets: the stage was entirely bare throughout, with the occasional large prop – in this play, a bed and a trunk – wheeled in and out as and when required. As with historically informed performances of classical music, this is not the only valid way of performing these works, but it’s certainly interesting, and, as with any other approach, when done well, immensely rewarding.

As for the interpretation, I really find myself not knowing what to say with this play: having little idea in my mind of how it should be interpreted, I can neither criticise this production for falling below what I think the text contains, nor praise it for exceeding my expectations, or for subverting my preconceptions. I think, though, that, perhaps, I am now beginning to understand this play. Whether this is due specifically to this production, or to my having repeatedly revisited it over the years in the conviction, given the passages of genius throughout, that Shakespeare couldn’t have expended so much of his greatness on something of so little worth, I really cannot say.

The play is a mish-mash. That is usually a criticism, but perhaps not here: we have to give Shakespeare the benefit of the doubt, and say that if it is a mish-mash, that is because he intended it to be such. Or, to put it another way, unity of tone was not high on his agenda here. The plotline, when summarised, is effectively a fairly-tale, and Shakespeare, I think, had been here before: in the midst of writing his great tragedies, he also wrote All’s Well That Ends Well, a play with, effectively, a fairy tale plot, and as far removed from the world of high tragedy as may be imagined. Shakespeare was already, it seems to me, anticipating his late works: the fairy-tale format of Cymbeline was no sudden whim.

And in order to appreciate a play such as Cymbeline for what it is, we must, I think, reject our preconceptions derived from the earlier works – and, especially, from the great tragedies. Characterisation is no longer the point. We may disagree on the characters of, say, Othello or of Iago, but the nature of their characters is central to the drama: to understand thedrama, we must investigate the characters. But here, it is not even to be asked why Iachimo poisons Posthumus’ mind, or why he later repents: it is enough that he does so. We no more look into the psychology of Iachimo – or of Posthumous, or of Imogen, or of Belarius – than we do of Rapunzel, or of Snow White. And the various different tones juxtaposed cheek-by-jowl, with no attempt to modulate from one to the other, have to be taken as they are: late Shakespeare is not interested in unity, or in modulating between different states of mind, any more than the late Beethoven was.

All that’s very well – but to what end? I still find that question difficult to answer, but, last night, I found myself more willing to submit to it than ever before. The vision seemed to be – I can only say “seemed to be” as I am still far from certain – of a bewildering diversity, of seeming randomness, all eventually finding a consummation of sorts in a final reconciliation and in forgiveness, and, ultimately, in a state of wonder. At the end, as at the end of The Winter’s Tale, those thought dead are restored: the vision is that of the Resurrection itself. Once again, this is not new in Shakespeare; those thought dead are restored also at the end of Much Ado About Nothing, and at the end of Twelfth Night (the restoration of Viola and Sebastian in that play is one of the most heart-meltingly beautiful passages that even Shakespeare ever wrote). But now, in his late plays, this theme of eventual reconciliation, and, above all, of forgiveness – of reconciliation with oneself as well as with others – seemed to weigh more heavily in Shakespeare’s imagination. And to convey this vision of reconciliation, Shakespeare turned not to the character-driven tragic world of Hamlet or of Othello, but to fairy tale, and to pantomime.

The production is as fine as I could have hoped for: it is thrillingly staged, achieving a far greater variety of effects than I could have thought possible given the venue; and the verse was spoken beautifully. Emily Barber, especially, makes a huge impression as Imogen (called Innogen here, as Shakespeare had done before the printer’s error immortalised her as Imogen) – making it entirely credible that all whom she encounters find themselves charmed by her, and in love. Only Eugene O’Hare’s Iachimo I found somewhat underplayed: as the pantomime villain, I think I’d have welcomed a bit more overt mustachio-twirling villainy. I think also I’d have preferred a greater intensity when, on first encountering Innogen, he is struck with wonder that beauty such as this could even exist. (Admittedly, Iachimo’s lines at this point are among the knottiest and most tortuous in all Shakespeare.)  But, given that I have never really known what to make of this work, I am not really in a position to make critical comments on interpretative decisions.

The production makes much of the comedy – and, I think, quite rightly. The scene where Jupiter appears to Posthumous in prison is rightly spectacular: Pauline MacLynn (better known to television viewers as Mrs Doyle in Father Ted), who plays the wicked queen in this production with a wonderful comic relish, doubles up in the prison scene as a transvestite Jupiter, and, perilously suspended high above the stage, plays the part as pure pantomime. Whether or not this is the right way to play this strange and awkward scene I don’t know, but it works. The tone of pantomime pervades the final scene also, when the beloved returns from the dead, and all is forgiven. I was initially worried that such a pantomime tone would overwhelm the seriousness, but there was no cause for fear: as with the late Beethoven, Shakespeare is happy simply to lay very different states of mind next to each other, without bothering with the shades in between; and somehow, all these different tones register. Don’t ask me why: I really don’t know. But when, even in the midst of all the knockabout comedy, even at the end of two hours and more of pantomime madness, Posthumous, Innogen once again in his arms, says

… Hang there like fruit, my soul,
Till the tree die!

I think my heart missed a beat.

Mozart achieved this sort of thing in The Magic Flute. I don’t think anyone else has.

7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Michael Harvey on January 14, 2016 at 9:01 am

    Enjoyed reading your thoughts on CYMBELINE. It’s a real thrill seeing a Shakespeare play on stage for the first time. Have you come across Bernard Shaw’s ‘Cymbeline Re-finished’? And his comments on the original?


    • Yes, I have read Shaw’s “Cymbeline Refinished” and have read also various of Shaw’s onslaughts against Shakespeare. I always find it hard to figure out how seriously we should take all this.,, and to what extent his tongue was in his cheek. Samuel Johnson described “Cymbeline” as “unresisting imbecility”. I used to think so also, but I am becoming more convinced now that Shakespeare’s imagination was working at levels where I, so far, haven’t been able to follow. I think though that am beginning, at least, to understand.


  2. Posted by Scott Bailey on January 14, 2016 at 10:12 pm

    Seattle Shakespeare did “Cymbeline” a couple of years ago (they performed a “chamber” version of the play, with a reduced cast and a couple of minor characters conflated, which worked pretty well in my opinion). It struck me as essentially a romantic fairy tale (I agree that the ending is very sweet) with comic elements. Of course Shakespeare’s comedy is often quite violent, if not downright cruel. But Meine Frau and I have, since the performance, been using “Yield, rustic mountaineer!” as a private joke. Oh hey, I think I actually blogged about it. Yes, I did:


    • Thanks for the link – I really enjoyed reading that. It is, as you say, a romantic fairy tale, with a great many comic elements. There are a great many tragic elements as well, of course: Posthumus and Iachimo clearly recall Othello and Iago, and Imogen’s despair on discovering that her husband wants her dead really does have about it a tragic pathos. But, although it’s all rollicking fun, it’s the fact – for it is a fact, I think – that Shakespeare has put into this some of his finest dramatic verse that gives me pause: would Shakespeare really have put so much of his best into a work that was no more than a bit of rollicking good fun? And what about that heart-rending dirge (“Fear no more the heat o’the sun”)? Or that transcendent moment when Posthumous recognises Imogen? I don’t know – maybe it should be seen as a bit of fun and no more, were it not that, intermittently at least, it does deliver so much more. As I said, it reminded me of Mozart’s Magic Flute – a mishmash of fairy tale, pantomime, knockabout comedy, but which makes nonetheless a profound effect. But then again, I don’t really understand that work either.

      But you’re probably right: it’s just a bit of fun. And if it contains elements of greatness, it’s probably because Shakespeare simply could not help himself: his vision shone through no matter what the material!


      • Yes, I think that Shakespeare set out to write a knockabout comedy but, being who he was, he saw the tragic possibilities and whenever he put pen to paper, of course he saw the lyric/poetic possibilities. He couldn’t help himself. Even his lesser works have his particular stamp of genius.

        But maybe you’re onto something, maybe he was working with bigger ideas than I credit him with here, and I should go back to the play and give it another reading. All of Shakespeare is interesting, so time spent in his company is never wasted, right?

  3. Posted by blatantnotlatent on May 1, 2016 at 1:45 pm

    Thanks for this! Feeling a little more relaxed, now: knowing that I am attempting to over-analyse something that (probably) doesn’t need it (probably because seeing Lear twice, and Faustus too many times, will do that to you…). Seeing it a couple of times at the RSC (maybe more): so will just let my first viewing float over me, and take it from there…!

    [What on earth would I do without all your sagacity and knowledge gathered here…? You do us all a great service. Your collected thoughts on ‘Big Willy Shakes’ would make a great book – both for the general public/enthusiast, and for kids studying his plays. You make us all think. And that is undoubtedly A Good Thing. Ta!]


    • Thank you for that – that’s very flattering – but really, I have never claimed to be anything more than an amateur enthusiast, and the only real reason I keep going on about these plays is that I live them so much, I can’t shut up about them!

      Cymbeline remains an odd play, though. It’s essentially a fairy story, I think – its plot is ally that of Snow White – and I am sure there is a learned thesis to be written on Shakespeare’s Use of Folklore, focussing particularly on this play.


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