Cymbeline, King of Britain

by William Shakespeare / 2019, Courtyard Theatre, Central / Directed by Ben Naylor and Anna Healey / Set and costume design by Lizzy Leech / Lighting by Josh Gadsby and Sam Thomas / Music by Paul Sartin / Sound by Dan Balfour / Fights by Bethan Clark  / Voice work by Morwenna Rowe 

If these pictures look like they may have come from several different productions, well, Cymbeline is several different plays. We had a game in rehearsal, to spot the linguistic, thematic and plot echoes of Shakespeare’s other plays – which are legion, as many theatre-makers and scholars have noted. And this, I think, is exactly the game Shakespeare is playing with his audience in this particular play.

I have a theory about Cymbeline. Bear with me, if you will. We know the play was in the repertory of the King’s Men in mid-1611, as the Jacobean quack doctor, astrologer, society therapist and serial sex-pest Simon Forman wrote a report of seeing it performed, along with three other short theatre reviews (two of which are of Shakespeare plays, Macbeth and Winter’s Tale). He wrote all four between April and September of that year, when he died. Forman explicitly says that all the other plays he reviewed were performed at the Globe; he records no venue for Cymbeline, so though it’s of course possible that he saw it there, it may also have been at the Blackfriars, the indoor venue the King’s Men were performing in from 1608.

This got me thinking about indoor early modern performance – especially as I’d chosen Cymbeline when Anna Healey and I were asked to direct the first production in Central’s new Courtyard Theatre (whose name suggests the early modern inspiration for its galleried structure). There are various elements of Cymbeline’s Folio text which hint at the architecture of indoor performance, not least the famous deus ex machina of Jupiter flying in on a golden eagle; and perhaps more so a revealing stage direction at the end of the famous trunk scene, “the scene closes”.

Around the time I was considering plays for the 2019 MA Acting cohort, I’d been involved in a fascinating day of lectures at the Rose Theatre Kingston, about early modern theatre space. One of the highlights was a brilliant series of talks about the Shakespeare North project, which is based on Inigo Jones’ design for a theatre which is only just starting to receive much scholarly attention, the Cockpit-at-Court at Whitehall Palace.

The Cockpit had been exactly that, built in the 1520s by bloodsports devotee Henry VIII. Presumably, James I wasn’t as keen on cock-fighting as his macho predecessor: in December 1610, nine workmen were paid for two days’ labour to refit the building as a theatre for the Christmas entertainments season at court, which traditionally saw several performances – including new plays written with prestigious royal performance in mind – by the top theatre companies of the day. Shakespeare’s company, the King’s Men, were more than just a top theatre company; they were James’ personal theatre company. They were surely involved in – perhaps behind – the refit of the Cockpit as their royal venue. And what better way to inaugurate this new theatre than with a play which spoke directly to the King, addressing his prime domestic and foreign policy objectives? The dates fit perfectly for Cymbeline‘s premiere in the Cockpit-at-Court at Christmas 1610, with the play a few months old when Forman saw it at the Globe or Blackfriars in mid-1611.

This association landed with me when working on the scene in which Cloten, the King’s stepson, having just come from a game of bowls which has turned violent, likens himself to a “cock that nobody can match” in a fight. A plan of Whitehall in 1680 shows the Cockpit in what appears to be the Palace’s entertainments complex: tennis courts, a tilt-yard, and at least two other areas which look like sporting venues (quite probably bowls and fencing were accommodated in the precinct).

I think Cymbeline was very likely composed as the King’s Men’s centrepiece of the opening season of their new prestige theatre in the royal palace, with metatheatrical reference to the former purpose and immediate surroundings of the performance venue. The play’s attempt to create a British national identity myth – a tapestry wrought significantly of moments from Shakespeare’s other plays – speaks clearly to the court, even if it was perhaps unlikely to have captivated the groundlings at the Globe. It seems aimed at an educated audience familiar enough with Shakespeare’s oeuvre to appreciate the theatrical in-jokes, while subscribing to the King’s desire to hear of classical, quasi-Biblical justification for his dream of uniting the disparate nations of the British Isles into a United Kingdom, and rebooting Britain’s relationship with her continental neighbours. The full title given in the First Folio, Cymbeline, King of Britain, which we used for this production, could not more clearly address the Scottish king sitting uncomfortably on the English throne.

Anyway, whether this historical theory is correct or not – and I don’t think it’s been advanced beforeCymbeline evidently wears its concern for the past and future of Britain on its sleeve. And if you’ve seen any of the work I’ve made at Central since 2016, or if you’ve explored this website, or encountered me on social media or in person, you’ll know that so do I.

This production of Cymbeline was the third in an unplanned trilogy of classical pieces Anna and I have made at Central which relate to Brexit, beginning with the high-minded idealism of Mary Stuart, continuing with the absurdist farce of The Rover, and culminating – or more likely not – in this confusing beast of a play with its unconvincing conclusion. A play in which the audience are mostly several steps ahead of the protagonists, watching the car crash happening with awful proleptic foreknowledge, powerless to stop it. As we went into rehearsal, the country careened ignominiously towards the ultimately non-cliff-edge of Article 50’s termination of our membership of the European Union. The beautiful design by Lizzy Leech – drawing architecturally on sketches of Inigo Jones’ 1629 renovation of the Cockpit-at-Court and spatially on early modern court performance, with a chair for the king in the centre of the audience in which Cymbeline sat in several key scenes – made subtly explicit in visual terms both the historical thinking behind the production, and its immediate context.

Visuals aside, this context is textually explicit everywhere in the political plot of the play, which concerns Cymbeline’s bone-headed refusal to pay tribute to Rome, buoyed up by his unpleasant wife and son-in-law (both of whom come to sticky ends):

Britain is a world by itself, and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses.

The story of failed diplomacy and savage conflict is mirrored by the King’s stubbornly unpleasant treatment of his daughter Innogen, and the consequent dissolution of his family as Innogen flees the court:

Hath Britain all the sun that shines? Day, night,
Are they both but in Britain? I’ the world’s volume
Our Britain seems as of it, but not in ‘t,
In a great pool a swan’s nest.

Evidently the play’s strident address to the Britain of 1611 – which let’s not forget with our benefit of hindsight was three decades from the outbreak of civil war – could not be more pertinent today.

Cymbeline is the first thing I’ve ever directed in which I’ve deployed a three-act structure with two breaks. It took a deep breath to commit to; though some of the very best things I’ve ever seen – JerusalemAugust: Osage County, Oresteia – have used two intervals, it takes courage or foolishness to give an audience two chances to leave; especially with a play not famous for its dramatic tension or narrative drive. This production wasn’t actually especially long – 2 hours 9 minutes of playing time – but as a play Cymbeline simply doesn’t, for me, sit satisfactorily in a two-act structure.

My productions have frequently featured costuming which clashes period and contemporary; it’s probably one of the central pillars of my style. The clashing apparent in the pictures above, however, was a little more metaphorically complex than usual, and responded to the three-act structure. The first of the three ‘episodes’ of the play (Shakespeare’s Acts I & II), which mostly concern domestic palace intrigue, took place in Edwardian and twentieth-century garb, consciously echoing and drawing upon The Crown, The King’s Speech, Gosford ParkDownton Abbey: the British public’s fixation with the soap opera of the monarchy and aristocracy’s recent past, Cymbeline himself a stern George V or Prince Philip horse-and-houndy type, barking insensitive inanities. The second episode (Shakespeare’s Act III and the first half of Act IV), when the political plot kicks in, referenced Henry VIII (one toxically masculine monarch giving way to another) and the court of George III (replete with madness), with glances at Elizabeth I. This historical regression then reached its inevitable conclusion in the Game of Thrones-style barbarism and weirdness of the third episode, replete with woad and witchery, in an ancient Britain which belongs in myth more than memory.

And as the Britons thus regressed into their own bloody-minded past (the physical style of the acting tending gradually from stiff uprightness toward savage animalism), sanguine, sophisticated Rome (first encountered in the minimal costume of the bathhouse) continued to appear in the garb of sleek modernity.

So far, so 2019. The play was full of moments where one could feel the immediacy and viscerality of the audience’s response, as political context and theatrical moment collided. We drew inspiration daily from the news, and drew too on our own past work, with some visual quotations from Mary Stuart, The Devils, and The Rover particularly. Self conscious? Perhaps a little. But the play seems to demand it; Shakespeare’s doing it himself in Cymbeline with his own work. And since we’ve generated a small following for the work we make at Central, we were able to quote ourselves to the same end that Shakespeare does, as part of the grand and stylish game that Cymbeline plays with a knowing audience.

One of the most evident of these visual quotes is also one of the most immediately political. In staging the battle at the end of the play – always difficult with a small stage and cast – we drew visually on riots: as we rehearsed, the gilets jaunes were out on the streets of Paris and Tommy Robinson’s crew on the streets of London. The Roman army appeared in a guise we’ve used in several shows to characterise the terrifying facelessness of contemporary paramilitary power: a creative variation on the SWAT/riot police uniform. Their near-ubiquity in my work goes back, perhaps, to the masked Romans of the production of Antony and Cleopatra I made with Vicky Araico; more recently they’ve appeared in Romeo and JulietMary Stuart, and The Devils. (The Venetian army in Othello had some similarities, but were never faceless, intended to remind the audience of peaceable New Zealand of the All-Blacks rather than social unrest).

I’ve been in a couple of protests in a couple of countries which have become unruly, and in which the authorities have deployed such agents to display or enact their power; it’s terrifying. Midway through rehearsals we went as a company on the People’s Vote march (which never came close to unruliness, of course). Nonetheless, that real fear of social unrest hung over our production, even as the play’s violence has a near-comic grand guignol, pulp-horror edge. And it haunted the ending particularly: given the political stasis of those fool’s days in early April, and the feeling of fatalistic gloom pervading for the most part in liberal London society, it was almost impossible to commit wholeheartedly to the play’s improbable conclusion. It wasn’t only the famous dea ex machina (in our production Juno replaced Jupiter) and the preceding dream sequence; more difficult still to find the contemporary truth in was the closing scene, with its sudden and psychologically incredible leap from conflict to harmonious resolution.

We found it in a conclusion brilliantly devised by Anna, in which the younger generation of Britons and Romans repudiate the weak, unpleasant king, while Innogen, under Juno’s beneficent gaze, calls on the assembly as a whole:

So through London march … Our peace we’ll ratify, seal it with feasts!

Let’s hope in this instance that art foreshadows life.

That isn’t quite the end of the story, though, for this production. Excitingly, we’re going to be filming some scenes of it with the wonderful John Wyver and Illuminations Media. We’re working together on a project researching the visual language of filmed Shakespeare through comparative reconstruction of an unrecorded broadcast in 1937 of six scenes of a stage production of Cymbeline. That production – the first ever televised Shakespeare – was running in the Embassy Theatre in 1937; now, of course, the Embassy is Central’s main house. Under the direction of André van Gyseghem, the Embassy in the 1930’s was a deeply politically-conscious theatre; perhaps Cymbeline‘s appeal in 1937 was for reasons not too dissimilar from its immediacy now. There’s a pleasing circularity to the historical echoes in this project, and it’s a tremendous privilege to work with John. I’ll post footage from the production and the filming project here in due course.