Shakespeare’s Cymbeline finally turned into a true work of art

Cymbeline – Barbican Theatre

The Ninagawa Company, under the stewardship of Yukio Ninagawa, has built up a fearsome reputation in world theatre. They stand as the equal of any post-war company from Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop through to Chicago’s Steppenwolf, whilst stylistically they are as uniquely identifiable as anything from Peter Brook or Simon McBurney.

Famed for his Shakespeare, Yukio Ninagawa has turned his attention to one of the most problematic plays in the Bard’s canon; Cymbeline. It is a difficult play to love and one that comes packaged with all kinds of traps for a modern audience. The plot winds and winds and seems unsure of what it wants to be, containing elements of romance, farce and tragedy. It has simplistic plot devices, like cross-dressing and misidentification, reminiscent of earlier plays but also contains the heavily allegorical language and non-human elements, in this case Jupiter descending on an eagle, that place it alongside The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest as one of the later plays.

Frank Kermode described the play as a tragi-comic romance and suggests that it may have been an in-joke for audiences who would have had a much better understanding of the text and references to earlier plays. None of which makes it any easier for a modern audience to unpick the complexities of the plot.

Luckily going to see a Ninagawa production is to have your visual senses wrapped in cotton wool and taken on a journey where the simplicity of images masks the masterful craftsmanship working behind the scenes. The technical understanding of balance is superbly illustrated again and again throughout the evening; light and shade, simplicity and complexity, the tonality is in harmony so that everything works towards the whole and the audience is never aware of the mechanics. Like other Japanese traditions that have bewitched Europeans over the years, from woodcuts to sushi, the skill rests on the ability to hide an incredible complexity behind a deceptively simple front.

It is difficult to fairly assess the skill of the actors without speaking Japanese and since the production leans so heavily on the visual, the rest of this review will take a radical detour and will look to provide a sense of the evening through the images it has left behind.

You can choose any one of a number of plot strands to call the centre of Cymbeline. Above we see the romance at the heart of the play, that of Posthumus and Imogen, as they are parted and again as they are reunited. As is traditional in Shakespeare the lovers must face many barriers before finally winning through in the end. However the play is made problematic, particularly to a modern audience, by the fact that Posthumus acts in such an unreasonable manner for much of the play, doubting his wife’s fidelity almost as soon as he leaves England before hiring his servant to murder her. That kind of level of trust does not always lead to happy relationships.

As the beating heart of the play, Hiroshi Abe, as the exiled Posthumus, and Shinobu Otake’s Imogen, bring the romance to life despite spending most of the play separated. They draw out the character traits despite the language barrier, with Hiroshi embodying the stoic and duty-bound Posthumus,  accepting of the State’s decision to banish him before later preparing to sacrifice himself in realisation at the fate he believes he inflicted on Imogen.

<<Continue to the full review>>

Around Town: Next Week in London

The lack of an update for over a week is a sign that Civilian Theatre has been taking a well-earned break following the enduring trauma experienced by watching Babel. However the reviewing season kicks off again in earnest next week with three plays lined up, each of which I am quietly confident about.

Antigone has the enticing prospect of Christopher Ecclestone returning to the National Theatre after a 22-year absence. Performing in one the great plays of the classical era, Ecclestone has the craggy and worn features that seem ideally suited to play Creon, a man who has spent years charged with the responsibility of holding together the state over and above any call to personal desires. He is one of our great character actors who actually appears in a lot less work than you probably remember but whose appearance is usually a clue that we are going to be watching some quite special – he is superb as Derek Bentley in Let Him Have It; one of those rare films where you can feel the anger of injustice bubbling through every scene, and equally good in the seminal 90’s TV series, Our Friends in the North.   

The Physicists will be the next play under Josie Rourke’s tenure at the Donmar. Having scored a big hit with The Recruiting Officer but perhaps underwhelmed slightly for many with Making Noise Quietly, Rourke will be looking to come back strongly with Durrenmatt’s The Physicists. It is hard to think of a playwright, or indeed style, that has fallen more out favour in recent years than Durrenmatt’s slightly avant-garde, philosophical work. However I can remember being absolutely blown away by a production of The Visit and the staging possibilities that such a play open’s up. When you take time to sit back and survey London’s theatrical landscape do you realise the striking absence of such originality- even if plots and narrative can still remain freewheeling and anarchic, there is a sense that dramatically everything looks a little a bit conservative. Admittedly Complicite are still pushing boundaries but, for all the positive reviews, plays like Laura Wade’s Posh appear very formal in style. One hopes that a strong production of The Physicists will help start getting director’s to re-embrace the experimental in formal settings rather than feeling that experimental necessarily means site-specific pieces and audience engagement. Time was when director’s used a theatre to recreate an atmosphere, currently it feels that the audience aren’t trusted to suspend our disbelief and will only understand that we are in an abattoir if we see real cows hanging off hooks around us.

The Ninagawa’s Company production of Cymbeline at the Barbican promises to finally kick start what has been so far a rather disappointing World Stage Festival. Little more needs to be said about Babel, and Three Kingdoms, whilst interesting, did not set the world alight with a mixture of fantastic ideas and, at times, incoherent structure. Having previously missed all of Ninagawa’s English productions, I am tremendously excited by a company that has a global reputation for Shakespeare and a history of producing visually spectacular tableaux that meld together Shakespearian storytelling with traditional Japanese techniques. Cymbeline is a particualarly interesting choice of play, as it is one of Shakespeare’s more problematic narratives and seems to be one that is alighted on more frequently by companies that often take an angle slightly askance of the traditional – the last major London production being Kneehigh’s version at the Battersea Arts Centres, which included all its usual visual flair but perhaps provided a little too much fun over substance.

Stills from Ninagawa’s Cymbeline

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