My first feeling on reading Cymbeline was shock that this play is so little known and so rarely performed.
Of all of Shakespeare’s plays, this was probably the one I knew least about. I have never seen it performed – to my knowledge, I’ve never even seen a production advertised. I knew Cheek By Jowl had done a production (2007). On looking it up, I discovered that Melly Still directed a production for the RSC in 2016 (a production that passed me by somehow, which is a shame because I admire her work very much). The Globe also did a production in 2016, ‘renamed and reclaimed’ as Imogen (the story is much more Imogen’s than Cymbeline’s so I can understand the retitling) directed by Matthew Dunster.
This meant that it is probably the only one of the plays I have read so far where I genuinely had no idea what was going to happen. And, as the play progressed, I found myself more and more anxious for the welfare of the characters. I was completely drawn into their struggle and the precarious nature of their situation. So much so that I’m not going to give away too much of the plot in this blog because, if you currently don’t know the story, I urge you to go and read it!
In some ways, you could view Cymbeline as a bit of a ‘greatest hits’ of Shakespeare’s work. It features cross-dressing heroines, scheming queens, mysterious potions, exiled noblemen, a weak old king, forbidden love, bedroom trickery, political conflict, war. It kind of has a bit of everything and yet, somehow, it hangs together rather well. There’s one rather strange fantastical interlude, involving the appearance of Jupiter, but aside from that it all rings very truthfully and coherently.
To a modern British audience, one could even put a bit of a Brexit spin on the story. The overarching politics centres around whether the British will pay tribute to the Roman (or European) Empire. Reading this debate felt weirdly pertinent.
I do genuinely struggle to understand why this isn’t one of the most performed of Shakespeare’s plays. It has a comic yet tragic figure in Cloten. It has a manipulative and Machiavellian Queen. Innogen (or Imogen) and Posthumous are excellent lovers - and far more believable than Romeo and Juliet.
Maybe it is avoided because it is quite long? But that doesn’t put anyone off doing umpteen productions of Hamlet! Maybe people feel it is a little complicated as a plot? But I wouldn’t say it is any more complicated than The Winter’s Tale which is performed far more frequently. Maybe it is simply because it is hard to put in a neat box? It contains elements of too many different genres and that confuses and scares directors, programmers and marketers.
For whatever reason, Cymbeline has failed to develop a name for itself. It is not a title that sells tickets. This is something of a vicious cycle though – the more it is neglected due to not being known, the more unknown and neglected it becomes.
Ultimately, there have been very few instances in my reading of Shakespeare’s work this year, where the dramatic action has really kept me hooked and engaged in its own terms. Sometimes Shakespeare’s plots feel a bit forced or formulaic (possibly because we’re over familiar with them) and we are carried forward by the beauty of the language and the depth of perception more than the story itself. Cymbeline, for me, was a rare moment where the story took centre stage. I just simply wanted to find out what happened to these people. The language helped make this powerful and exciting and moving. But it was all about the narrative.
This play needs to be performed more and given a platform to show how good it really is. I’d love to direct it and get it out in the world again!