If ever there was a case to be made for the danger of monarchs who inherit their power versus those who have been thoroughly trained to lead nations (many will convincingly argue that no leader is ever ready to govern: they have to learn on the job even if that means their mistakes will lead to deadly consequences for their innocent subjects), it is the sorry decision-making abilities of Britain’s King Cymbeline. If two wrongful banishments of young, loyal men twenty years apart (the former leading to the consequent abduction of his two male heirs, the latter bringing about the certain death but sudden resurrection of his only daughter) wasn’t convincing enough demonstration of ingrained poor judgement, then marrying a conniving wife whose only ambition was to seat her boorish, ruthless son on the throne, succinctly settles the depth of his character flaw. Where was the palace revolt, deposition or British Spring when needed?
Britain’s loss is William Shakespeare’s and director Antoni Cimolino’s good fortune: having this sad sack royal bumbler on hand allows them to deliver a crackerjack production that is a credit to every actor (well-led by Geraint Wyn Davies in the title role), designer (the combined expertise of Scott Penner, Carolyn Smith and Robert Thomson serving up “the eagle has landed” for the ages) and technician involved. Given the challenging confines of the Tom Patterson theatre space, their kudos are even more deserved.
Perhaps the Bard’s last play, it’s chock-a-block full of the master’s favourite inventions: magic potions that mask death, “stolen” children who re-appear on cue, cross-dressing heroine (in this case marvellously named Fidele, so at one with Beethoven’s Fidelio—cross-reference below), rigged wagers (this time about chastity), philosophical gallows keepers (here summing up the increasingly feint hope: “I would we were all of one mind/ and one mind good”), angry visiting ghosts and a larger-than-life god throwing thunderbolts.
With such an arsenal of devices, little wonder the play has heavenly lengths as the plot strands are gradually woven into a single, blood-stained fabric. Accordingly, one of the key decisions for the director is how to keep the audience engaged while flitting about between the palace, the forest and faraway Italy. In this instance, Cimolino plays the bawdy card to its full measure but—the only major quibble with the otherwise outstanding production—inadvertently lets the quick laughs trump the most evil creature of the large cast.
With Posthumus (Graham Abbey is at his best once he abandons his courtly garb and becomes a heroic commoner) her freshly minted husband (raised and tutored by Cymbeline, adding to the irony and dubious judgement mix) banished to Rome, the door is now open for desolate Innogen’s (Cara Ricketts is ideally saddened but shifts up to the realm of superb when circumstance demands she bend her gender) half-brother to win her bed and then the crown. Well-schooled by his ever-ambitious mother (another first-rate rendering by Yanna McIntosh), Cloten—filled with wine courage and reckless lust—makes his move. Casting Mike Shara in the part already raised the expectation of a nuanced performance likely “erring” on the comedic aspect of the shameless courter/courtier. One of his post-Posthumus duties is to awaken the still distraught, faithful-from-a-distance Innogen with music—soothing her troubled breast and hopefully putting her in the mood for a much coarser invader.
The scene is set: Cyrus Lane, guitar in hand and wonderful voice at the ready dutifully appears and intertwines his beautifully sung verses with Cloten’s bawdy Ode to Penetration. Of course, all of this is in the lines (“If you can penetrate her with your fingering so; we’ll try tongue too”) which quite aptly establish the lecherous intent. Decked out in a flowing kilt, soon provides an, er, opening for the “cock” jokes, but by then the hysterical comedy between troubadour and tormenter (of which Shara is a master, doing everything asked without question and much skill) slips over the edge and lands suddenly in the realm of Derek Jarman’s steamy views of manly jousting. Laughs aplenty (not a few nervous) ones fill the room; the ambiguity has not yet taken its final bow: Cloten’s further appearances are more coloured with an overindulgence in plonk than smouldering foulness unleashed. Thus when his own brutal comeuppance finally arrives (bringing unintended hilarity to the meaning of previously being “in the bag”—but still headed) there is more a feeling of “Oh, rats, no more naughty bits,” than thank goodness there’s one less bully walking the planet.
No worries. The capacity crowd ate it up and revelled in the overly generous helping of comic relief which Shara masterfully mined. Much can be made of Cymbeline’s transformation from blinders-on king to all-forgiving victor, yet his choice to resume the tribute payments to Augustus even after trouncing the Romans (led with extra irony by his long-banished colleague, Belarius—John Vickery’s resonance a special treat all on its own—and his two long-lost sons: warrior-apparent E.B. Smith and nimble Ian Lake in fine Robin Hood form), the reborn ruler’s decision verily laughs on the graves of all of those who died in the name of freedom. Thanks goodness subsequent kings and presidents have never stepped onto the field of battle for simple revenge rather than compelling facts.
Of course Cimolino knows all of this and much more. Having the opening tableau (“You do not meet a man but frowns”—iterated by Cymbeline) feature a volume-speaking stare down of the hapless king deftly sets the stage for the timeless events that follow. JWR