William Shakespeare's Cymbeline is one of those experimental late works in which an artist of genius pushes his chosen medium to all kinds of extremes, regardless of the resulting incongruities. The final scene, for example, ties up an outrageous number of loose ends (at least 27), and is a bravura exercise in romantic self-mockery. Yet en route it also creates heart-stopping moments of wonder and profound emotion, as when the hero, embracing his lost love, bids her "Hang there like fruit my soul/ Till the tree die". Likewise, there's a notorious episode where the grief-stricken heroine keens over a headless corpse, itemising its noble qualities. On an intellectual level, the gravity of this situation is grotesquely undercut by our knowledge that the mutilated stiff is not, as she thinks, her husband but his buffoon arch-rival. But such is the poetic force of her feeling that Imogen emerges with dignity unimpaired.
As for the plot, it would have given Aristotle a nervous breakdown. It manages to exile the hero from ancient Britain to Renaissance Italy. Mixing intense sophistication and disarming simplicity, it tosses into the same pot wicked, fairy-tale stepmothers and acute explorations of misogynistic jealousy. How do you sustain an audience's interest in something so wilfully heterogeneous? The American company Theatre For A New Audience, which is visiting the Other Place, suggests a simple answer: by sheer winning chutzpah and total belief in the power of theatrical storytelling.
Performed on a scarlet platform stage, their account, directed by Bartlett Sher, is a delightful blend of robust jokiness and dreamy delicacy. At the Globe this summer, there was a lithe, light-footed production that imposed a beguiling unity on the piece by having the whole cast outfitted in white judo suits and performing multiple roles. These Americans go for broke in the opposite direction. They revel in the play's range of tones and discontinuities. Ancient Britain is a Hokusai world, inflected by Japanese percussion, where pint-sized hero and petulant rival (Michael Stuhlbarg and Andrew Weems) are like samurai versions of Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The lost princelings who have been reared in the wilds of Wales are reimagined here as denizens of the Wild West, swaggering around in chaps and Stetsons and delivering a simple, deeply affecting country version of "Fear no more the heat o'th sun".
This isn't merely cheap stylistic promiscuity, but a disciplined and generous-spirited eclecticism. The company really understands what is at issue, morally and aesthetically, in the play. One innovation is a suited and bow-tied duo, who wander through the proceedings like scholarly observers and assume, in a twinkling, the roles of those characters who expedite the happy ending: Jupiter, say, or the doctor who thwarts the Queen's poisonous plans. These two embody the play's authorial self-consciousness. They are the voyeurs here of some beautiful effects, such as the sequence in which the heroine and her servant whirlingly fight against a fierce, snowy wind with their stiff, black parasols. Just before the interval and at the end, the entire cast of characters (even those who now have to bring on their heads under their arms) gather for a group song ("Love is everywhere") which joyously transcends the kitsch with which it knowingly toys.
In beleaguered Stratford, bitterly divided over the RSC's future plans and soon to present that company's perfectly dire Christmas production of Alice, this spiritedly spoken American Cymbeline comes like a blast of fresh air.
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