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Cymbeline has been described as an experimental tragi-comedy, or among the first dramatic romances, but neither is adequate to describe the perfection of the final scene of the play when Shakespeare weaves golden unity from the chaos of loose threads. Mr. Moshinsky breathes life into this production by using the palette of the great Dutch Masters whose paintings minutely chronicle the mundane but serve as visual metaphors for the existence of the transcendent which underscores every moment. In a great cast, two performances really stand out. Helen Mirren's Imogen, the symbol of fidelity, resonates with tragic depth and constancy. The range of her voice is given full sweep especially in the ironic scene in the cave after she awakens from her drugged sleep. Claire Bloom's Queen, a very glacial villainess, scared me much more than if she had been portrayed as a stock evil step-mother.
It would be much easier to make a laundry list of complaints about how
"Shakespeare didn't know what he was doing," or "everyone and
everything bores me," but let's do it the hard way and see what's here.
This is one of those late plays that academics can't classify as a tragedy, comedy or history. This is not a mistake of Shakespeare's, but a deliberate choice. "Cymbeline" is crammed full of incident, sprouts multiple strands running off in all directions, and miraculously pulls itself together at the end. In fact, some critics refer to "Cymbeline," "Pericles" and "The Winter's Tale" as the Miracle Plays.
So, assuming just for the moment that Shakespeare did know what he was doing, how well has he been served here? Helen Mirren as Imogen is herself a miracle, "in the moment" at every moment, totally committed to her character. John Kane and the ubiquitous Paul Jesson bring similar conviction to Pisanio and Clothen, respectively.
Michael Gough surprises with his model delivery of Shakespeare's language - clear and natural. More likely to be remembered for some spectacularly grungy horror movies, Gough has done his own reputation a disservice with his enthusiasm for constant work no matter how scuzzy the script. This is his only appearance in the Shakespeare series, and that's a real pity.
Richard Johnson rasps and scowls well as the King (check out his IMDb.com bio for a few surprises). Claire Bloom flirts with a Disney concept of an evil stepmother without quite going over the line. Michael Pennington acts everything that can be acted about Posthumus without the gift of making you care.
Robert Lindsay, so grand in comic roles in "Much Ado" and "Twelfth Night," here is the inverse of Helen Mirren, without a single moment of truth as Iachimo - a fumbling, external attempt at a villain by an actor outside his natural range.
Elijah Moshinsky's direction is of a piece with others of his in this series. Ignoring all Iron-Age references in the script (Julius Caesar is not long dead), Moshinsky's fascination with Old Masters' paintings gives us a coherent through line to the production, with a particularly wonderful mountain snow set designed by Barbara Gosnold. Occasionally the director provides a striking image, as when one character converses with the mirror reflection of another.
However, Moshinsky's editing is occasionally clumsy. When Iachimo presents his false proofs to Posthumus, the camera stays on one character or the other for far too long, and often the wrong one. We strain to see the other character, and aren't allowed to. This is distracting, maladroit, and just not good enough.
However "Cymbeline" has much to recommend it, and Helen Mirren's performance alone is worth the price of admission.
Though orthodox theory deems William Shakespeare's Cymbeline as one of
his latest works, the play is so cumbersome in its plotting that, as
suggested by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, it is more likely to have been a
redraft of an earlier anonymous work, An history of the cruelties of a
Stepmother shown at the palace at Richmond in 1578. In Cymbeline, first
printed in the First Folio of 1623, King Cymbeline's Queen (who is the
prototype of the wicked stepmother) wishes to marry her uncouth son
Cloten to Cymbeline's daughter Imogen, performed in the BBC's 1982
production by the great Helen Mirren. Imogen, however, has chosen the
worthy Posthumus (Michael Pennington) who has been rejected by King
Cymbeline (Richard Johnson) and the Queen (Claire Bloom) because of his
status as a commoner.
The main thrust of the story, however, has its sources in Boccaccio's Decameron, a 14th century tale that was also used as a source for All's Well That Ends Well. The story tells of a jealous husband who makes a bet on his wife's fidelity and is tricked into believing that she was unfaithful. Shakespeare takes this story set in Italy and transports it to Roman Great Britain at the beginning of the Christian era. Cymbeline is modeled after the real King Cunobelin but the Queen, her son Cloten, and Imogen are all inventions of the playwright. The real King, however, did have two sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, who play a prominent role in the play but again Shakespeare takes extravagant liberties with history. The dramatist has the King's sons abducted from the Court in early childhood and have been brought up ignorant of their ancestry for twenty years by Belarius, whom the King had banished from Court.
The play has many parallels with the life of Edward de Vere, too numerous to mention, and can be used as a case study for those favoring the Oxfordian point of view but is beyond the scope of this review. The play contains one of the most beautiful of all of Shakespearean songs, "Fear no more the heat of the sun" sung in a duet by Guiderius and Arviragus.
Fear no more the heat o' the sun, Nor the furious winter's rages; Thou thy worldly task hast done, Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages: Golden lads and girls all must, As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
Cymbeline, like many other of this author's works, uses the device of a woman, Imogen, posing as a page boy, in order to pretend that she is dead. This would have been very tricky in the Elizabethan days since only boys were used to play girls. So we have the case of a boy pretending to be a girl who, in the play, pretends to be a boy which he in fact was in the first place.
Another theme that is consistent with the dramatist is the overweening jealousy of a judgmental husband who wrongfully accuses a pure and innocent girl of infidelity, a jealousy encouraged by Iachimo (Robert Lindsay) who is reminiscent of Iago in Othello. This will make for interesting biographical material if the authorship question is ever sorted out. While Cymbeline receives a good performance by the BBC ensemble cast, Helen Mirren is unbelievable in the role of a page boy, the BBC making no effort whatsoever to disguise her. To have us believe that the King would not recognize his own daughter can only be described as ludicrous.
The BBC Shakespeare series often posed a problem - low budgets,
stage-bound performances, odd camera-work, leaden pace - but this
version of Cymbeline, one of my favourites of Shakespeare's lesser
known plays, is not that bad.
Certainly it suffers from the same low budget and lack of location work, but it manages to transcend this with a largely excellent cast. Richard Johnson and Michael Gough, Claire Bloom and Helen Mirren, Paul Jesson and Graham Crowden, especially, keep the verse moving and get truly inside their characters. Mirren is heartbreaking as Imogen, with her husband exiled, and herself assuming a new identity in the wild when her life is in danger.
Some scenes work less well than others - the dream of Posthumous when he sees father, mother, and Jupiter (the scene gives Marius Goring and Michael Hordern a chance to shine, but it is preposterous), and the final scene's poor acting from Michael Pennington - usually reliable he goes too OTT here. But the scene with Imogen and the corpse she thinks is her husband ... and the mock-seduction scene with her asleep and Iachimo in wicked mode (Robert Lindsey, not that believable in much of this play but good in this scene).
This Cymbeline is good, mainly because it is really the only time the difficult play has been put on the screen. Within the BBC series it is one of the better ones, not too stagy, not too bland.
And the musical arrangement of 'Fear no more the heat o'the sun' is beautiful.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Another good adaptation of a Shakespeare play, Cymbeline sees the title
character, the King of Britain,cast his daughter Imogen into exile for
choosing the wrong husband, lowly Posthumous thus setting off a chain
of events that nearly sees him lose his crown. Machinations abound with
the King's scheming wife,his fey and pompous stepson, as well as a
group of hunters lurking in the nearby forest who have deep and
ultimately redeeming connections with the King.
Richard Johnson is likable enough as the beleaguered King, and Claire Bloom and Micheal Gough are good enough in their roles. Robert Lindsay could be more menacing in the part of the scheming Iachimo, despite a racy mock-seduction scene with Helen Mirren's Imogen. Mirren is good to watch as the virtuous but naive princess, despite a scene in the end where she's lamely disguised as a boy but no-one recognises her. Paul Jesson, usually cast as rough working class characters, bravely takes the other route as Clothen and comes off well. Micheal Pennington, however, is the biggest loss as Posthumous. He's gamely acting his socks off but he just isn't moving enough to really convince us of his character's plight.
The story at least is seen to make sense and that is reason enough to give this one a go. Not the best of the BBC Shakespeare adaptations but not the worst either.
The BBC's intention is to put Shakespeare's plays on the screen, not to 'improve' them. Certainly I could argue that a little adaptation here or there, a few edits impossible on stage, and armies fighting out battles in outside locations would make the thing more enjoyable, but it really would be wrong for the BBC to have done this, even if they could afford to. What we have here is what Shakespeare wrote and we see it as he intended, with the limitations but also the opportunities for imaginative descriptions for an actor to get his teeth into. 'Cymbaline' is too long a play and relies as often is the case in Shakespeare on luck, mix-ups and quickness to mistrust. Unfortunately it does it rather lumberingly at times. And how anyone could mistake Helen Mirren for a boy, let alone her own father not recognise her is dodgy enough; the BBC could at least have disguised her a little more! Overall the production was good, with the performances of Mirren and Gough and Jesson particularly working for me. I thought Lindsay good enough, but Pennington sadly subdued on all but a few occasions. In short, a play I'm not fond of was done almost as well as I could imagine it being done.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This play gets lots of flak, and I think unjustly. I see it as Shakespeare experimenting with everything he knew how to do simultaneously. It works for me, and the results are astonishing, especially the ending. I liked the cast and I enjoyed the setting, though it was a strange choice for a play set during the reign of Augustus. It looks like the Netherlands during the era of Rembrandt, so that creates some discontinuity between what they are saying and where they are. My wife pointed out, and I agree, that it is very odd to think that any woman would forgive a man who had ordered her murder. I wish Fellini were still alive to do a version of this. If Tarsem Singh decided to take on this play that would be something. Now that Joss Whedon has directed his first Shakespeare...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Cymbeline is often seen as problematic, and it not among those of
Shakespeare's works which receive the most attention. "The Tragedy of
Cymbeline" features Cymbeline as a smaller character who end the play
joyous and alive, more clement than before after having realized his
error. The plot is a bravura tangle -- a tour de force of Shakespeare's
power of creating mazes of deception and misconception, then resolving
everything in a symphonic final scene. In a sense, it is plotted like a
Shakespearean comedy but otherwise written like a Shakespearean tragedy
(in the scene where Imogen decides to disguise her self as a man -- as
so many of Shakespeare's comedic heroines seem to -- she also earnestly
and poetically begs Pisanio to kill her), becoming interestingly
Elijah Moshinsky, in directing this production, takes the wise move of playing the script deadly straight (except or course for definitely comic elements such as Cloten's self-love) and wringing as much drama from the play as possible. Largely it works very well, and Cymbeline is, as it should be, an emotionally powerful journey. The effect is aided by good atmosphere and appearance -- these BBC TV productions sometimes show humble origins, but here the appearance of a bleak, and largely empty castle where many scenes take play, and that of similar landscapes outdoors, enhances the mood.
The greatest positive attribute, though, is a cast with many extraordinary performances. Helen Mirren headlines and is excellent, making Imogen always believable -- a strong person overwhelmed by circumstances. Michael Gough is wonderful as Belarius in a very sensitive performance that makes the character palpably guilt-ridden, but loving and possessed of pride (this performance makes me wish Michael Gough had done much more Shakespeare). Robert Lindsay is very memorable as Iachimo, taking a rather upsetting sensual pleasure in all his villainy. Richard Johnson is notable too with a fairly eccentric but very good performance as a grumpy, sulky, and cantankerous King Cymbeline, and Claire Bloom is chilling as his villainous wife.
Sometimes the pace lags, but it is worth this for the attention paid to hitting all the vital moments of this play. I'm glad the only full screen performance we have of this play is a good one, sensitively directed and blessed with excellent acting from many hands.
This play was first staged in the early 1600s and inevitably it has lost something in transportation through time and space to a BBCTV studio. The atmosphere doesn't feel right even though the costumes and sets are not bad. As for the plot, King Cymbeline (Richard Johnson) is not a happy bunny when his daughter Imogen (Helen Mirren) marries beneath her station. He banishes the husband from the kingdom and puts Imogen under the wing of her treacherous stepmother (Claire Bloom). From there the story takes many twists and turns. Robert Lindsay puts in a fine performance as a baddie, and it's nice to see Michael Gough, Patricia Hayes, Marius Goring and Michael Hordern popping up here and there. The play is not one of Shakespeare's greatest hits though, and this 1980s TV version only just held my attention; it seemed dull in parts.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
This rare play is fascinating and surprising. It is first of all
political, highly political. The queen, or rather wife of the king of
Britain in Roman times, is a plotter who tries to get the crown for her
own son. The king has lost his two own sons and the queen has to get
rid of his daughter. She plots and plots but to no avail apparently
since she will die and her own son will be killed by one of the lost
but surviving sons of the king. But things being complex the queen
leads the king to refuse to pay the tribute to the Romans so that, she
hopes, the Romans will come and get the king. Unluckily the two sons
and the man who has raised them and the husband of the king's daughter
who the king had banished save the day and defeat the Romans. So much
That's were Shakespeare turns magic. Till the very last instant in the last scene everyone is under the threat of being killed for some crime he has or he is accused of having committed. And the various death sentences that are hovering over the heads of them all fall like leaves in the autumn, but fall flat on the ground. Shakespeare uses contrived explanations that are so marvelous that no one can refuse to believe them and then we have a father who meets his two supposedly dead sons, is reunited with his supposedly lost daughter, is confronted to his son in law who he had banished and yet helped defeat the Romans, is brought face to face to a soldier he had banished a long time ago and who had taken care of his two sons. And he finally ends up the day by granting pardon to every one prisoner. That's a charming happy ending but constructed so swiftly and wisely that we doubt it will really end without any more killing till the last word about a general pardon is uttered. Then a soothsayer can come in and explain some mysterious prediction the son in law had managed to receive from Jupiter himself and all is well that ends well.
Yet the play is a lot more interesting than that after all. It contains some patterns that are so Shakespearian. Two brothers are quite a common pattern in many plays. A difficult or impossible marriage, that's common too, in a way a primordial feature in many comedies. An old king that has become bitter and a wife that is manipulating him into unwise political decisions and human crimes is there to remind us of Lady Macbeth. A son in law who is receiving some poison in the ear when he listens to some report or rumor about his wife is there too reminding us of Hamlet. The exiled people living in the wild, or nearly so, can make us think of King Lear and his period outside in the wild nature. The disembarking Romans are not far from King Lear again. And of course the daughter of the king disguised into a page is so common that no one could miss it. We could actually be surprised that there be only one disguised girl.
This production has another charm. It is systematically played in Renaissance costumes and the setting is Dutch or Flemish looking. That's in fact a charm added to the play because it enables it to move from the Roman paraphernalia on one side and the rustic if not barbaric attire and accoutrement on the other side. It makes recognizing who is who a little bit difficult but it gives the play a real universal fragrance. The BBC was already getting globalized in 1983 when they decided (in 1978) to produce the complete plays by Shakespeare. And that project was a unique decision in a time when DVDs did not exist yet, and the Internet was still a secret military tool in some laboratories and universities in America. It is a good thing they did it and many other public television networks in the world could do the same thing for their classics: all Molière, all Racine, all Corneille, all Goethe, all Schiller, and I guess we could move then to more modern projects. I won't speak of operas because that is being done, little by little somewhere in the world: all Handel, all Mozart, all Wagner, all Richard Strauss, etc, without speaking of the Italians, Verdi, Rossini, and so many others. It is a fine treat to get into 32 plays by Shakespeare.
Dr Jacques COULARDEAU, University Paris 1 Pantheon Sorbonne, University Paris 8 Saint Denis, University Paris 12 Créteil, CEGID
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