Cymbeline is something of a paradox. A surreal, deeply personal and chaotic tale of love, revenge and a wicked Queen, it has all the hallmarks of everything we love about Shakespeare’s plays. It’s almost a vortex of his most popular and enduring themes and characters… and yet compared to a number of his other works, it is barely performed. Next month, Secret House is giving this play its turn on the stage at the Depot Theatre, and they are prepared to leverage both the beauty of Shakespeare’s storytelling, as well as more modern theatrical approaches to tell the best tale they can.
On the subject of why this play is so rarely seen, director Sean O’Riordan says “There is a wonderful story there and exotic and exciting characters but there is also a lot of dense, difficult and at times confusing text to wade through in order to find it. There is also the somewhat stunted story line arc for each character. No individual character has a strong through line the stories jumps about from one to another. For the most part the story revolves around the quest of Imogen, the King’s daughter, to live in happiness with her commoner husband but there are also a number of other characters each pursuing their own objectives.” So rather than adhere strictly to the text as written, Sean is adapting it as needed: “I greatly favour cutting, moving text or in some cases adding or re writing in order to make meaning more clear. I believe these plays are the product not just of Shakespeare’s pen but of actors or stage managers who have added and printers who have changed or again added to the text… So cutting out many of the repetitions not only makes the play shorter, move faster but also makes it more understandable.”
And what a play it is! Cymbeline “excels in it’s dark, menacing world of intrigue, violence and wildness” that all stems from a princess marrying a common man. On exactly how this plays into the story, and why it remains one of the most enduring themes in today’s stories, Sean says “More than the glamour of the rich and powerful royals marrying commoners which sparks much interest in the media and leads to such interest in readers I feel it is the sense of marrying for love rather than duty… The world of Cymbeline is a swirling mass of rules and regulations being challenged and thwarted. In modern times self-determination, the individual and their needs are continually under stress from the large agents of state power, corporations, Church, the media, politics etc. The will of the individual coming up against the will of the dominant power is a central theme in Cymbeline and therefore still means something to us today.”
While it’s true that these themes are present in many classic and contemporary stories, Cymbeline offers both a great challenge and a great amount of fun in its unique treatment of them. Sean remembers “instantly becoming excited by the Harry Potter-like world of intrigue and wildness in both the world of Cymbeline’s palace and in the outside world of ancient Briton. Alongside this is the delight of meeting a character like Cymbeline’s wife known only as The Queen. She is a plotter and a schemer, a two faced manipulator reminiscent of Lady Macbeth or the Wicked Witch of the East.”
The world of the play is one that not only connects with us on a primal storytelling level, the medium of theatre itself often works in its favour. “ I think that the fascination of these worlds – magical, mystical, fairy story, science fiction, fantasy is that of the other” Says Sean. “We want to revel in that experience. As I watch the rehearsals of a 400 year old play based on a series of historical half-truths and myths supposed to have happened nearly 2000 years ago I get excited as these characters come to life and become for all intents and purposes real. Creating this dream-like reality has appeal to both the creators and the audience… The other impact of the medium of theatre is that it uses the power of the imagination. Instead of special effects which film uses, actors and audiences have to engage with their imaginations to create worlds and effects. The actor uses their raw skill of persuasion and the audience is compliant with this by suspending their disbelief and actively accepting whatever it is that it is being asked to believe in… The whole experience becomes a very social event for cast and audience combined.”
You can join the cast and creators of Cymbeline in that experience when they open at the Depot Theatre on October 7th.