This was the first play I saw during this stay and the last one too – and I’m glad I organised myself like that. This is this season’s one Shakespeare play everyone should see, the one I’m most happy to have seen. Which has to do with Geraint Wyn Davies as the King and Graham Abbey as Posthumus – both actors absolutely brilliant in their performance and a joy to watch. But it also has to do with the fact that it was a “new” play for me, as it is rarely brought to life on stage although I cannot fathom why: it is a fairy tale, and a beautiful one at that, and I (and the rest of the audience) enjoyed it thoroughly.
A fairy tale this is, indeed, or a dream that dreams of rewriting history so that you can wake up in the morning for a fresh start. With an evil stepmother, a test of trust, a conspirator and finally, during the last battle, a turn of tables, a growing up of all participants and a glowing happy end it draws you into a world of noblemen and -women and of war and peace.
At Cymbeline’s (Geraint Wyn Davies) court young Posthumus (Graham Abbey) grew up as the best friend of princess Innogen (Cara Rickets) – and the friendship of the two children grew into the love of two adolescents. For Posthumus it is as if he just found the holy grail – he not only has gained a lover, but also a family as he was born after his father had died (hence his name) and his mother didn’t live long either. To him, sweet Innogen who adores her hero is his queen and he needs nothing more. The two get married as soon as the princess is of age, but Cymbeline is not happy: prodded on by his cunnng wife (the amazing Yanna Macintosh) and aware he is too late to prevent the marriage he exiles Posthumus. Devastated the young lovers exchange gifts – a diamond ring for him, his gold bangle for her. And then he’s off to Rome, narrowly avoiding an attack of boarish Cloten who – as Innogen’s stepbrother – has hoped to marry the princess to strengthen his claims on the throne.
Meanwhile Roman general Caius Lucius (Nigel Bennett) arrives at court to collect the tribute Cymbeline hadn’t paid in a while – thanks to his meddling wife and his stupid stepson. A Roman invasion is soon to start.
All the while in Rome Posthumus comes across Iachimo (Tom McCamus) with whom he shares an old feud – about whose country has the looser women. And because Iachimo knows how to push the Brit’s buttons Posthumus agrees to a bet: 10.000 pieces of gold or the diamond ring, if Iachimo is able to seduce Innogen. And Iachimo wins the bet – of course through a plot – he sneaks into the chaste woman’s bedroom in a “treasure chest” and steals her golden bangle to brag with it back in Rome. A devastated Posthumus who has lost everything – his love, his faith, his queen, his trust, his family, his life – sends his servant to kill Innogen and volunteers for the upcoming fight in Britain.
In Britain the evil queen is trying out poisons she begged off the court’s medic. To see if it works she hands the vial to Posthumus’ servant hoping he would consume it. But seeing how desperate Innogen is when receiving her husband’s letter, he not only is unable to kill her as ordered, but he also gives her the vial – as he assumes a strengthening tonic is in it. Innogen’s only way out is to dress as a boy and flee into the woods, because Posthumus is there, waiting for battle. In the forest she meets an old man with his two sons – and while she waits for them to return she drinks the potion in the vial, and apparently dies.
On their way to hunt the three men meet Cloten – who is his usual charming self and manages to aggravate them so much that the older son beheads him not knowing who it is he taught final manners. They decide to join the battle but when they come back to their hide out, the boy/princess seems dead and they leave her there, next to Cloten’s headless body, covered in leaves.
The battle ensues. Just when it seems the Roman army is winning Posthumus rips off his armor (yes, on stage. yes, graham abbey is half naked through most of the second part and yes, he is dirty and sweaty) and fights for his king who had raised and nursed him through his childhood. The old man and his two sons join too and the British win.
When counting their losses they find Cloten and the dead boy/princess, some captives – amongst them Posthumus and Iachimo – with them. It is then Cymbeline learns that his queen, thinking he lost, has killed herself, but that his daughter isn’t dead at all as the poison the court’s medic has given the queen would not kill, only incapacitate. Tormented by his conscience Iachimo finally apologises and admits that Innogen had sent him packing but that he had stolen her bangle and betrayed her trust. She is the chaste wife Posthumus has been bragging about. It is then that she opens her eyes and the pair is finally reunited in love. And when Cymbeline asks who the bravest fighter for them was, he finds it was Posthumus – and the two young strangers. But they aren’t strangers after all. They are his two sons who had been abducted by a general who had been – falsely? – accused of treason and sent into exile. He had brought them up and returns them to their rightful station now.
Cymbeline, feeling as if the dark clouds of a nightmare have been lifted from his shoulders, pardons the general and his son who’d killed Cloten, and Iachimo and – as his sons are back and will succeed him on his throne – finally blesses his daughter’s marriage with Posthumus (who is still half naked). He even grants Caius Lucius a pardon and even though the British army has won the battle he accepts to pay the tribute to Rome.
So was all this a dream? A chimaera to rewrite history to gain peace and rid themselves of all evil that had befallen the court? Or had all that truly happened so that true heroes were able to rise from the ashes of a battlefield and create a better future? It’s up to everyone’s interpretation and it certainly is food for thought. But even if you don’t want to analyse / over-analyse the play, it is a wonderful piece, incredibly modern and full of “action”, with tender moments as well as violent ones (the “stealing of a bangle/belt etc was synonymous for rape since the medieval ages – remember Siegfried and Brunhilde in Nibelungenlied and I think Tristan/Tantris and the wife of the knight).
Also, Stratford’s supply of fantastic actors is amazing – Graham Abbey better be in next year’s playbill, too – he was truly magnificent and not because he lacked clothing (but he was half naked for most of the second half; thank you, wardrobe department, I owe you chocolate!) – his ability to make the audience sniffle is definitely a bonus. Tom McCamus is his suave self once again, making the seducer believable and even likeable (almost) and Queen Yanna McIntosh scared the bejeesus out of me. Add to that Geraint Wyn Davies who starts and ends the play sleeping, dreaming, or is he?, and it’s the perfect set up for an enjoyable evening in which great actors obviously have fun being mean, or in love, charming or rough and finally just on stage to give the audience a brilliant time.
All in all I wish I hadn’t been so damn tired both times I saw it – this stagedoor would have been an amazing treat!