By Karen Isaacs
Cymbeline which is now at the Yale Rep through Saturday, April 16, is one of Shakespeare’s problematic plays. Written late in his career (it was first performed in 1611), some scholars believe there was a collaborator on this play. Scholars also disagree on how to classify this play: is it a tragedy? A comedy? A history? A romance? Elements of the plot both fit and violate accepted definitions of each. For a tragedy, too many main characters remain alive as the play ends. While it is based on an ancient king of Britain, it is not in line with the other history plays which focus on the kings immediately before the Tudors. It also violates the premise of Shakespeare comedies since a number of characters are killed. So by default, it is usually considered a romance which include the much better known The Tempest and The Winter’s Tale along with Pericles.
These plays have a number of common features – they deal with reunions of family, reconciliation, forgiveness and righting of past injustices. Often there is an emphasis on the cleansing power of nature, supernatural elements; plus, the reunification of families is facilitated by daughters.
It tells the story Cymbeline, an ancient king of Britain, whose wife has died and who has married a widow with a son (Cloten). The new queen is the personification of the duplicitous, power hungry woman. She wants to marry her cloddish son to the king’s daughter, Imogen. Imogen is his only child as his two sons were kidnapped in very early life and have never been found.
Imogen loves and has married Posthumus Leonatus, a young man of lower station who has been a fixture at court. The King has banished Posthumus to Italy but before he leaves, he and Imogen exchange tokens: she gives him her mother’s diamond ring, and he gives her a bracelet.
We now move to Rome, where Posthumus is staying with a friend and meets Iachimo, a young Italian gentleman. Annoyed by Posthumus’ praise of Imogen, Iachimo makes a bet with him that he can prove her false.
At the same time, the Roman ambassador arrives at the court, demanding that the King pay the tribute agreed to years ago when Julius Caesar conquered Britain. When the King refuses, it is clear that war will ensue.
But as with any Shakespeare plot, we have to move to yet another location: Wales. Here is Belarius, a banished lord and his two sons who live in a cave and hunt. Belarius who had been wrongly banished by the King, reveals that his two young sons (Polydore and Cadwal) are actually the King’s sons; Belarius abducted them in revenge for his banishment but the two do not know of their lineage.
The set-up of the play is just about complete. But we have forgotten about Iachimo and the
bet. He arrives at the Cymbeline’s court and gives Imogen a letter supposedly from Posthumus. He also asks her to store a chest of valuables overnight in her chamber. She agrees; of course that night it is revealed that he is hidden in the chest and uses the opportunity to get details of the room and her, and to remove the bracelet while she sleeps. Upon his return to Italy, he tells Posthumus all of this; Posthumus believes Imogen has been unfaithful and sends a letter to his servant at the court to kill Imogen.
As the play progresses, the servant reveals the letter’s contents to Imogen who escapes the court and ends up joining up with the Roman ambassador and the soldier. Posthumus is willing to die so he fights first for England and later the Romans. Belarius and his two sons heroically fight for England.
Eventually all the tangled plots come together. Of course, some ghosts and even the Roman God Jupiter make an appearance. Cymbeline’s army defeats the Romans and Imogen (disguised as a man), Posthumous and Iachimo are all taken prisoners; Cloten has disappeared (he was killed by one of Belarius’ sons) and the Queen has killed herself. At the end the King accepts Imogen’s marriage to Posthumus, Belarius reveals that his two sons are really the King’s sons and all is forgiven. Even Iachino, despite his villainy, is spared.
This production now at the Yale Rep has received a lot of press attention because director Evan Yionoulis is using what she refers to as “gender-bending” casting. This means that some male roles are played by females and some female roles are played by men. The latter, while not common today, has been done. In Shakespeare’s time, young boys played all the female roles; women were not allowed on the stage. And in the last years, the Globe Theater in London has done a number of productions following that tradition. Two of them, Twelfth Night and Richard, the Third were presented on Broadway starring Mark Rylance – in one he played the female role. We’ve also had a number of productions and even a film of The Tempest with Prospero played by a woman. It worked!
Playing with casting can be problematic. A director must carefully consider if the non-traditional cast adds an important layer of meaning to the play or does it detract from the author’s intentions. Will it confuse the audience or bring in issues that are not relevant?
This production of Cymbeline proves both the benefits and the pitfalls of non-traditional casting. Yionoulis has cast Kathryn Meisle – a very good actress – as Cymbeline and Michael Manuel as the Queen. One can understand that there could some benefits. The Queen after all is a power-hungry and unscrupulous character; she also seems to be the “power behind the throne.” But having a very large male play the role as a Harvey Fierstein type, does, it seems to me, a disservice to women, men and the play. It becomes too easy to laugh at the Queen who is so clearly a male. It also removes the sexual tension between the Queen and Cymbeline; after all the Queen has convinced Cymbeline of her love.
Meisel does a good job of being ferocious as Cymbeline, but again, does it subvert the play. Does it add sexual ambiguity to a story of reconciliation?
Posthumus, Imogen’s husband, is also played by a woman (Miriam A. Hyman) as is one of Belarius’ two sons (Cadwal played by Chalia La Tour); and a few minor male characters are also played by women. Again some of these work but many are distractions. Is there an implication of a same-sex marriage between Imogen and Posthumus? In one scene, in the Roman baths, the need to hide Posthumus’ chest makes for a very awkward costume.
This is a production that is very good in some elements – the scenic design by Jean Kim, the lighting by Elizabeth Mak, the sound by Pornchanok (Nok) Kanchanabanca, the costumes by Asa Bennally and the projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson.
Much of the acting is also good though the pace is a little slow and at times the dialogue is muddied. The one real misstep is the handling of the ghosts and Jupiter – it should be a deus ex machina moment and it isn’t. It engendered more laughter than it should; yes, it is ridiculous but it should still be taken by the audience somewhat seriously.
Overall, if you have never seen this less familiar Shakespeare play, the production at Yale Rep, though long (about three hours) is one you should see. You will leave with some questions, less about the play and more about the rationale and impact of the casting. I’m not sure that should be the case.
Cymbeline is at the Yale Rep’s University Theater, 222 York St., New Haven, through Saturday, April 16. For tickets contact email@example.com or call 203-432-1234.
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