Cymbeline, Kneehigh Theatre Company, Birmingham Rep

My week in Birmingham coincided with a season of Cymbeline by the excellent Kneehigh Theatre Company, the people who brought you Tristan and Yseult at last year’s international festival. Tristan and Yseult was the highlight of the Festival for me (being the only person in all of New Zealand who isn’t into Lepage) so when I realised last year that they were in Birmingham at the same time as me, I booked straight away.

As expected from a Kneehigh show, the production was quirky and charming. Like Tristan and Yseult, there was a chorus aspect to the piece, but instead of “the unloved” this was a chorus of the homeless. Dressed in green parkas and woollen hats the chorus shifted set, operated remote control cars (messengers) and became Milford Haven – more on that later.

I sneakily managed to take a photo of the set … but have to change the file type so will figure that out and post later.

The set (if you could see it) was a two level cage. The front of the cage opened out to become Italy and Imogen’s bedchamber; a band was installed in the top providing live music and the rest of the upper level would be where Cymbeline sat as King, behind them were lights that spelt out Cymbeline with some the bulbs not working, of course by the end all of the lights are burning bright.

For the geeks out there:
Fair no more the heat of the sun was sung
Cloten rhymed with Rotten
Cloten doubled as Belarius
Queen doubles as Aviragus
Pisanio was female. A maid of the household.
Cloten doesn’t have any attendants/flunkies.

I hadn’t reread the play before I saw this show so usually I wouldn’t comment on the cutting but in this case it didn’t matter becuase for the most part this was a modern language production, only very occasionally would Shakespeare’s verse be used, mostly for moments of heightened emotion (love scenes, Jupiter etc). It was pretty effective in general but towards the end of second half I think the verse would have worked better than a paraphrased modern language production. Certainly the entrance of Jupiter lost all impact and was a bit confusing as the actor playing Iachimo also doubled as Jupiter and the distinction in costume at that point was pretty unclear.

I’m starting to jump around now so to work through the play … (as I still haven’t got around to buying a decent but cheap edition of the Complete works for while I am here (don’t roll your eyes at me, yes, I can see you) I’ll have to rely on my unreliable memory to where act and scene breaks are or even the order of the play – I’m not David, I can’t do it without a book …)

First up is a semi montage/dumbshow (please forgive me on the terminology here) where Imogen and Posthumus are trying to elope but Imogen keeps delaying their departure by dropping her flowers and then stumbling over a remote control car carrying a photo of her and her lost brothers. Eventually she’s caught by the King (thanks to a tip off by the Queen) and Posthumus exiled, Immogen upset, band doing something emo, you know the rest.

A pantomine style Widow Twankey like (i.e. badly dressed transvesite) character greets the audience telling us about how she’s been on holiday from Britain before a slightly harassed and very stressed Pisanio enters trying to clear up the mess from the dumbshow. The first bit of the actual play before the entrance of the Court is in modern English as this gossip is brought up to speed with the news from home and then shooed from stage. Immogen gives Posthumus her ring, Posthumus gives her his watch and sets sail (thanks to the help of the chorus who dress him in a dinghy with straps for his shoulders and a had with seagulls attached to it. The final touch? Fish flipped out of the boat and attached to the bottom with wire).

The Doctor has been cut from the play and now the Queen is Cymbeline’s former nurse … which made me a bit confused about the poison business with Imogen – I’m still not sure I understand what happened there (whether it was by mistake or design that Imogen is only put to sleep and not killed). What was interesting is how the Queen remained a nurse to Cymbeline (“medicine time”) and was slowly turning him into a dependant junkie.

In Italy, Posthumus arrives with his guide book, looking lost and is immediately set upon by Iachimo (now a pimp of a brothel) and his prostitutes (all of the other characters in Italy turned into a chorus). The bet is made – 2 Ferraris and money against Imogen’s purity. Iachimo makes his way for England (boat, segulls and fish) and meets Pisanio who falls instantly in love with him and is a bit miffed that he doesn’t notice her. His emergence from the trunk and into the discovery of Imogen’s room becomes a dance (his speech is cut) as he gently moves around her on top of her extra as he gets the watch off her and instead of the mole on her breast, he finds a tattoo to use as

Hark hark the lark was hilarious, an excellent band accompanying a tone deaf Cloten, dancing about in his boxer shorts and telling the band that they were crap when it doesn’t work out. Cloten also wonderfully sleazy, rubbing himself up against any garment of Imogen’s.

In England, Caius Lucius is cut from the play and replaced with two security people in black bearing the portrait (on wheels) of a benevolent Caesar. One of the guards plays a answering machine tape and from it we hear the voice of Caesar. When the tribute is denied the portrait is flipped around to reveal angry Caesar and a new tape is played.

Imogen flies to Milford Haven and instead of Fidele she makes an exchange of clothing with a homeless man (who is delighted with the new dresses he has aquired) and becomes Ian, finds the makeshift shelter of Belarius and goes to sleep. It’s about from here that I got a touch confused (and I confess that five plays have passed since I saw this so my memory is a touch dim) as to why Imogen takes the poison, who finds her after she wakes and, well, all of the battle. I know that everyone went to battle but as to who was on what side, I have no idea – Posthumus doesn’t have his one on one battle with Iachimo and rather than being captured dreams (or maybe passes out) on the battle field to have the vision of his parents (dressed in vaguely WWII regalia) who appeal to Jupiter (doubled by the actor playing Iachimo and also in war regalia which I think made him a different character but I’m not so sure). And then suddenly reveals at the end and they just kind of happen again I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be on the battlefield on in the Court … but it did end with every lightbulb on the sign lit to spell out (triumphantly) Cymbeline.

It was a very good production. Not as good, or clever, or exciting or heartbreaking as Tristan and Yseult (where the device of the unloved worked brilliantly), but charming none the less. Maybe in this case, knowing the actual play made things confusing for the spectator and had I not known the plot (as the many teenagers at this matinee didn’t) I may have enjoyed it more.

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