Romans in Britain. The BBC Cymbeline. Nope. Doesn’t sort out how I feel about Cymbeline.
I’ve never known how to feel about Cymbeline. Whenever I watch it or re-read it I keep wondering if the play will cohere for me. And it never does. It is multi-nodal. It is implausible. But does it fully commit to insanity? It reminds me, like The Winter’s Tale, of those strange “tragedies” of Euripides that end happily. Ion. Iphiginia in Tauris.
There’s the problem of focus of course, and the titular character. Of course, it is arguable that Julius Caesar is not the main character in his own titular drama – but the play is still about him – about the implications of destroying such a man. Henrys IV and VI are not the main focus of the plays bearing their name – but the plays are really about their reigns rather than about them. Perhaps this play is about the reign of Cymbeline in something like the same sense, but the play doesn’t really have that kind of historical excuse. This story is set during a dubious pseudo-historical (largely mythological) Celtic resistance to the emperor Augustus. It’s not a slice of history, but a dream of a national half-remembering which works best when smudged.
Director Elijah Moshinsky does like his seventeenth-century Dutch interiors. He uses them to great effect in All’s Well That Ends Well, and like that (more successful) staging, you feel like you are wandering through Vermeer paintings for much of the time. To my mind, the detail and precision of this world sorts ill with the peculiar poetry of the play, as well as the sudden dramatic reversals the play forces us to entertain. This production is far more successful when it gets outside, and offers wild Welsh weather as a backdrop to its magic and madness.
I should give up trying to make sense of Cymbeline, because it’s at its most successful when most insane, when poor humans really are just the playthings of the gods. Or of Michael Hordern, in this instance. I must remember to look up which actor appeared in the most BBC Shakespeares. It’s either Michael Hordern or Robert Lindsay. Anyhow – they’re both in this. Also spot the wonderful Patricia Hayes and the majestic Marius Goring in tiny roles. Ah me.
Lindsay’s Iachimo I can’t help but find one of the least successful of his contributions to the series. We first meet him in a topless bar, staffed by male waiters where he plays chess while verbally duelling with Michael Pennington’s Posthumus. Secreted in Imogen’s chamber he appears to be naked (though the camera stays north of the equator). There’s a kind of sweaty desperation to this Iachimo that almost serves him as an excuse. A more cold-blooded and meditative villainy would have scared me more.
The speed with which Posthumus credits Iachimo has always been a problem in staging. Pennington himself succeeds best when craziest, tattered and torn on the battlefield and then close prisoner awaiting death. His madness is more credible than his sanity and the ghosts and deities seem more plausible than the tailored lords and ladies of the earlier scenes.
Oh and of course, there’s Helen Mirren. Wonderful in desperation in her second cross-dressing BBC Shakespeare role. Mind you, it’s still difficult to understand how Cymbeline (Richard Johnson) doesn’t recognise her just ‘cos she’s wearing trousers and the well lit indoor intimacy of the staging only makes his stupidity more annoying. Mirren’s best scene – perhaps the scene with the hapless Pisanio (the real hero of the play?) where she declares…
The lamb entreats the butcher: where’s thy knife?
Thou art too slow to do thy master’s bidding,
When I desire it too.
There’s a deal of music in the play – as perhaps there needs to be – though some of it is a bit too “appropriate” for my liking. All of it is of unusually high quality though. Did I well up during the “Fear no more the heat of the sun” song? Did I ever.