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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: July ::
Re: *Cym* Prod; Cultural Construct; Clowns
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0591.  Saturday, 29July 1995.
 
(1)     From:   G.L. Horton  <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 Jul 1995 16:50:44 +0059 (EDT)
        Subj:   Cymbeline Production
 
(2)     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Friday, 28 Jul 1995 12:52:45 GMT
        Subj:   Re: Cultural Contruct
 
(3)     From:   Shirley Kagan <
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        Date:   Friday, 28 Jul 1995 10:47:03 -1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0587 Re: Branagh; FRINGE; Cultural Contruct
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           G.L. Horton  <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 Jul 1995 16:50:44 +0059 (EDT)
Subject:        Cymbeline Production
 
I've just stumbled across the review I wrote of the Huntington Theatre's 1992
production of Cymbeline.  I hope it's not too late for it to be of some use to
the director who posted the query.  G.L. Horton
 
CYMBELINE is a romantic tale rehearsing many of Shakespeare's familiar themes,
set in a pre-Christian Britain where charity reigns and "Pardon's the word to
all". As Shakespeare is preeminent among writers in lavishness, unpacking the
hearts of even minor characters with winged words, piling on incident and
subplot and divine intervention until his constructions are the bane of
classicists in every age, so Cymbeline is the Bard at the top of his bent-- and
maybe even a bit over the top.
 
As in LEAR, the title character is an old king who rejects his headstrong and
virtuous daughter.  On the human level, lust, malevolence, and folly that rule.
Marriages, friendships, kingdoms are made and split by whim. Everybody, even
down to the servants, goes through reversals; betrays and is betrayed. (Some
few of these got cut when the Huntington trimmed the prodigious script to a
manageable three hours.) The tone is epic, even mock-epic, rather than tragic:
Jove is over all, the soul advances to happiness through painful experience, as
deep supra- natural forces work towards a goal beyond man's ken.
 
The Huntington production apparently set out to match the script in prodigies,
and in prodigality.  John Falabella's design sketches probably looked
spectacular, and in them the director may have seen a chance to integrate all
the disparate elements: Classical Rome, Machiavellian Italians, the court of
ancient Britain, wild outlaw caves. But it turns out that the set has florid
detail that makes the first scene - a directorially interpolated Druidic dumb
show - look impressive, and every subsequent scene look ridiculous.
 
The costumes, too, simply don't work: although by now the audience is used to
almost any sort of outfit in Shakespeare, including PJ's for the ART's Hamlet.
This "postmodern" approach to costuming is close in spirit to the practice of
Shakespeare's own time, when actors generally wore contemporary garments
suitable to their characters age and social rank, with a few additional
symbolic elements. But in David Murin's designs, something went radically
wrong. Instead of being tied together by a bit of glitter here, some macrame
there, a Renaissance waistline paired with a hip-hop haircut, the costumes
turned vulgar and clumsy, right out of a low-budget sci/fi movie. These
costumes make the actors look misshapen and uncomfortable, and they signal to
the audience a B movie contempt for subtlety and seriousness.
 
By the time of his late romances Shakespeare seems to have lost some of his own
seriousness, and begun to view politics with the offhand irony he applied to
love in the earlier comedies. The rousing speech of British patriotism, worthy
of Henry V, is put in the mouth of Cloten, a villain and a fool.  Divine Right
of kings is undercut by Cymbeline himself, a legitimate ruler whose every
action is that of a dupe or a dope.  But Shakespeare hasn't lost faith in
personal grace. Imogen is the star part. This is a woman -- a girl, really--,
whose physical presence is so compelling that strangers fall instantly in love
with her, even when she is covered in rags and dirt, disguised a servant boy.
 
Like the twins Sebastian and Viola, Imogen and her lost brothers are nature's
nobles. They exceed from birth what education and condition aim at, and they
win love and loyalty at sight. Unfortunately, at the Huntington these three had
no family resemblance.  "Purists" might say, what do you expect, when the
politically correct insist on nontraditional casting?  But the poetry and
princely bearing of Keith Hamilton Cobb as the king's younger son suggest that
had his siblings been cast, like him, in a way that visually suggested that all
their virtues came from the queen their mother's side of the family, the
production would have been the richer for it.<
 
Successful productions of Cymbeline, such as that of Canada's Stratford company
in 1971, usually follow a strategy of enlisting the imagination of the audience
in making the implausible credible. In the most famous of these
implausibilities, the scene where Imogen wakes up in a grave which also
contains a headless corpse she believes to be that of her husband, the
Huntington's Larry Carpenter decided to put poor Lyn Wright downstage center on
the bare floor, and partner her with what is clearly a dummy smeared with
something that looks remarkably like ketchup.  Were she as talented as the
legendary Imogen Ellen Terry, Ms. Wright might still have had to contend with
derisive snorts and titters from the audience.
 
Both Ms. Wright, and Sheila Allen, who plays the wicked Queen, have impressive
resumes. Both are o'erparted here.  Surely it would have been possible to find
in Boston a pair of actresses who could have come closer to filling out these
roles?
 
Bryant Weeks made Posthumous as sympathetic as possible to an age where
husbands are not entitled to kill their wives, however adulterous.  John
Christopher Jones as Cloten and James Bodge and Richard McGonigale as Cloten's
attendants got full comic value from the boorish prince's behavior. Gary Sloan
relished his villainy as Iachimo, but he never set in motion the crosscurrents
of perverse idealism that would have made his repentance believable. However,
that might have been a wasted effort, because this production plays all the
last act revelations and reversals for laughs.
 
Critics and directors have disagreed on how far any of CYMBELINE'S fabulous
events must be credited for the tale to have significance beyond mere
entertainment. The 1971 Papp production in Central Park shrugged off the battle
scenes, assigning them to an army composed of giant crows and ostriches. Still,
as mere entertainment, and even in the Huntington's less than stellar
production, there are riches here to amuse and amaze the eye, "..hitting each
object with a joy".
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Friday, 28 Jul 1995 12:52:45 GMT
Subject:        Re: Cultural Contruct
 
Michael Yogev is quite right. There are no 'theory-free' approaches to
Shakespeare. No one can 'just go' to the theatre, or 'just read' the 'text' of
a play. There is no text 'in itself' to which we can have unmediated access.
And the sky is not falling.
 
T. Hawkes
 
(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Shirley Kagan <
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Date:           Friday, 28 Jul 1995 10:47:03 -1000
Subject: 6.0587 Re: Branagh; FRINGE; Cultural Contruct
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0587 Re: Branagh; FRINGE; Cultural Contruct
 
A side track to the "unfunny clowns" debate: although I agree that a fair
amount of Elizabethan clowning reads (and performs) pretty badly these days, I
think we should be wary about throwing the baby out with the bathwater.  As I
have mentioned berfore, I am currently directing MAAN and am taking great
delight in Dogberry, et al.  Without making the characters too zany, loony,
batty, etc., they are still funny.  The situation is funny - Doberry is the
classic, eternal officer of the law who counsels his subordinates to hang out
in the donut shops rather than to try and enforce the law.  That situation is
funny on "the Simpsons" and it's funny in MAAN.  Branagh's treatment of the
watch etc, was one of the least satisfying aspects of his film, for me,
specifically because he seemed to forget that they were all people and reverted
to the "caricature" mode that has become so trite as a treatment of
Shakespearean clowns.  I have had to argue the actor playing Dogberry out of
this kind of treatment of a very human character.  I doubt that this approach
will leave people rolling in their seats, but they may enjoy the character more
that if he were just some weirdo (which also wouldn't leave them rolling in
their seats).
 
There is another reason for taking this approach to Dogberry et al. Despite
being the "shallow fools", as Borachio so aptly recognizes they are the ones
who discover the plot against hero and ultimately set things to right.  The
shallow fools are, in fact, the heros.  I think it is a pretty remarkable
comment on the blindness of the "honor system" and "nobility" espoused by Don
Pedro and his gang.  That "the people" are the saviors of the day can almost be
read as democratic.  If the low characters are played too low or ridiculous,
this interpretation stands to be lost.  Once again, it's all a matter of
choice, but in our production we are enjoying going down this path.
 
By the way, our performance dates are coming up.  The production will be
presented outside Kennedy Theatre on the University of Hawaii at Manoa Campus
on August 11, 12, 13 & 18, 19, 20 from 5-7 p.m.  Picnics, blankets, etc, are
encouraged.  If any of you are in town, please drop by.
 
Shirley Kagan
University of Hawaii.
 

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