This is not a review of Cheek by Jowl's Cymbeline at the Brooklyn Academy of Music
|Ok, so there's this ancient British king, see, and he's got a young daughter who loves this guy, but the king totally disapproves, so he banishes the guy, who goes to Italy (which is really ancient Rome) where he makes a bet with some Italian dude (who is actually some Roman dude) that his girlfriend back home is the most beautiful and least seducible girl in the world, and the Italian dude is all, "I could do her -- I'm Italian" and the guy is like "No you couldn't -- she's British" and then the Italian dude actually goes to England, if you can believe this, and totally comes close to bringing home the ancient british bacon, but the girl doesn't go for him, so he CHEATS by sneaking into her room hidden in a chest, then when she's sleeping he looks at the tapestries she's got hanging on the walls and steals a bracelet from her and finds a weird and private birthmark she's got, then gets back in the chest, is taken out of the room, back to Italy/Rome, where he announces that he's won the bet, even though he has done no such thing. He's a bit of a prick. Meanwhile, back in England, the King's wife, also known as the original chick's stepmother, is helping her clod of a son seduce her own stepdaughter, which where I come from is not cool, but it doesn't really matter since the clod of a son is even worse of a seducer than the Italian guy and has no shot at our lady, whose servant has been given a potion by the Queen who tells him it's delicious medicine, even though she thinks it's poison meant to kill her son's rival, or maybe even the girl, but the poison is actually just a sleeping potion that the doctor who gives the Queen her medicine-mixing lessons has subbed in for actual poison, because he doesn't trust the motives of the Queen, and I guess he wants to see who she wants to poison based on who randomly falls asleep in the middle of dinner, since he could have just given her, um, mead and prevented a whole lot of head-ache for everyone.|
Then, in Acts 3 through 5, some other stuff happens.
What the hell? How is this even a play? And better yet, why do we still perform it? If this was by Fletcher or Shirley, we'd laugh at it. And I guess there were a bunch of people in the audience when I saw Cheek by Jowl's production of Cymbeline who were laughing at it, no matter how wrinkled Imogen's brow was as she delivered her lines. It's hard not to laugh at Roman Italians sneaking out of chests to peek down sleeping princess's nighties, and it's hard not to laugh when a plot makes serious use of a sleeping potion that no one knows is a sleeping potion. The company wisely played these ridiculous moments for laughs, though I'm not sure there's any other option if you want to perform Stuart tragicomedy these days. I'd love there to be some way to tell an audience for Cymbeline beforehand that what they're about to see was not really written as predominantly comic, that it was in fact more meant to be a mixture of astonishing and creepy and awe-inspiring and fear-inducing, and that even though Cloten is kind of a clown, his decapitation isn't amusing in any way. Cheek by Jowl treated us to a half-awake Imogen humping -- yes, humping, there's really no other word for it -- the headless corpse she wakes up next to in Wales. What occureth in Milford Haven, abideth in Milford Haven, as we all know, but still. I'm not sure the Folio's stage directions call for quite as much moaning as this production featured. (Imogen stirreth as from sleep, with slowness, and, as in sleep, humpeth the body. She moaneth thrice.) Perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised, then, that when it came time for the avalanche of costume-shedding and son-finding and girlfriend-dressed-as-boy-slapping that composes the end of the play, the audience laughed once more. A lot. And not with relief or pleasure, really. This was the "Oh, come on" laughter that you might find yourself laughing as space aliens arrive to whisk away a zombie wolf in a movie starring Dakota Fanning (The Girl Who Cried 'Zombie Wolf!' at Aliens, coming soon to theaters everywhere).
Here's the strange part. My reaction to the revelations in the final scene? Revelations, mind you, that I completely knew were coming? I literally, and for the first time when it comes to this play, cried. Not, like, cried cried. Jeez, man. Just sort of teared up. Now, admittedly, I cried at the end of Spy Kids, too. It doesn't take all that much to get the waterworks going over here. I cried three times writing this very sentence. But seriously: I found even this fairly overbearing version of Cymbeline to be... evocative. The end of Cymbeline is completely ludicrous. No arguments there. But ludicrousness cannot completely hide the serious labor of that final scene. So much weaving being done. So much trouble unraveling itself. Is it believable? Not a chance. But is it beautiful? And even admirable?
Tragicomedy's not dead. You just have to spend years of your life reading 17th century drama to feel the beat of its impossible heart.