“In Cymbeline,” writes J. M. Nosworthy, “Shakespeare secures the tragicomic balance even if he uses creaking kitchen scales to do so, and the play emerges clearly as a romance.” But as he also admits in his introduction to the Arden edition, “the poetry is never quite equal to Shakespeare’s best,” and what kind of romance can subsist on a poetry deficiency? It does contain one of the Bard’s finest lyrics, “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,” but in the dramatic text, nothing really stirs.
The plot, jointed together from various sources, comes up with things like Imogen waking next to oafish Cloten’s headless trunk and mistaking it for that of her beloved Posthumus. It is all a case of overplot (Cymbeline and the British overcoming the Romans), plot (Imogen and Posthumus’s road to each other), and subplot (the lost sons finally restored to the king) resisting congenial conjunction. And except for Imogen, it lacks interesting characters.
Imogen – the princess who marries a commoner and lovingly searches for him when he is banished, while he believes her faithless and wants her dead – is one of Shakespeare’s finest heroines. But recently at BAM, Joanne Pearce, for all her enthusiasm, did not rise to the occasion. Short of stature and unremarkable of aspect, with a voice more insistent than musical, and movements more determined than graceful, she almost suggested one of the Elizabethan boy actors rather than, as Hazlitt put it, “perhaps the most tender and the most artless” of Shakespeare’s women. Artless maybe too much; tender too little.
Then again, it would be hard to summon much tenderness for the Posthumus of Damian Lewis, one of those pale young Brits of equine features and unvirile demeanor. And then the dull and overage Paul Freeman as the dangerous Iachimo, whose lurking in Imogen’s bedchamber is as fraught with sexual peril as a doctor’s bedside visit. Further setbacks are the unregal Cymbeline of Edward Petherbridge and the cartoonish Queen of Joanna McCallum; the monstrously mouthing Ewart James Walters gets to louse up both Lucius and Jupiter. Only one performance scores, the Cloten of Guy Henry, who manages to be beastly and craven without losing a clownish charm, enhanced by flawless comic timing.
But the cast gets scant help from Adrian Noble’s pedestrian production. In Anthony Ward’s design, the servants scurry about in Sino-Japanese costume and coolie behavior, while the rest wear eclectic garb of no place and period. Ward’s set is a stagewide white sheet, manipulable by curtain rods front and rear into even or uneven U shapes, like a vast magazine rack. There is a slit, as in underwear, for people to walk through, though sometimes, when the U hangs low, they have to bend like limbo dancers to pass underneath. Neither Hugh Vanstone’s lighting nor Stephen Warbeck’s music has much to contribute, and the scenes of war and martial prowess in this understaffed production disturbed nobody’s sleep, either in the auditorium or onstage.