At the outset of the Globe Theatre’s production of the Bard’s most infamously convoluted contraption, artistic director Mark Rylance pointedly announces “The Tragedy of Cymbeline!” That’s how the play is categorized in the folio of 1623, which had no category for romances (or “problem plays,” or “Goldberg, Rube”). But Shakespeare’s erratic twilight opus is better pegged as Very Tragical Mirth, ranging from the broad buffoon comedy of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the wrenching father-daughter schisms of King Lear. Careering between three countries (England, Wales, and Italy) and many more temperaments, grafting in the sexual double cross from Othello and a wicked stepmother modeled on Lady Macbeth, Cymbeline often resembles a spotty greatest-hits album—or more accurately, a B-sides compendium. The medley of styles only attempts to accommodate characters who are constantly changing their tune: two commoners who aren’t, a boy who’s a girl, corpses (one headless) that live, and, by the long evening’s end, plenty of penitents.
Last month’s Theatre for a New Audience rendition at the Lucille Lortel was a quick-bake casserole of eras, backdrops, and accents. These Brits, directed by Mike Alfreds, veer in the opposite direction to solve Cymbeline: The set is bare but for a stand of percussive instruments and six performers—attired in matching white pajamas—who cover 15 parts and even call out their own stage directions. The Janus-faced actors literally embody the copious whiplash role reversals: Rylance works double time as the clod Cloten and the princely Posthumus, both of whom covet Imogen (Jane Arnfield), only daughter to King Cymbeline (Terry McGinity); John Ramm switches between the dastardly Iachimo and the avuncular Morgan, caretaker to the king’s long-lost sons. Indeed, much of Cymbeline‘s emotional heft derives from mistaken mourning or faraway-so-close frisson—one of the wandering souls, seized by sorrowful anger, nearly kills the one he grieves for. The final scene is an orgy of ruptured dramatic irony, revealing 27 discrete fragments of information in an ensemble burst of tell-all confession.
Despite the pomo-minimalist trappings, these Globe trotters don’t send up Shakespeare’s contortionist beast so much as chuck it affectionately on the chin and saddle up. After Iachimo has convinced Posthumus of his inamorata’s cuckoldry and Imogen plunges into hiding to restore her good name, Arnfield announces, “Enter Imogen, dressed as a boy,” and glances down grinningly at her unchanged jammies. That’s as close to wink-and-nudge as it gets, shunning arch parody for we’re-all-in-this-together ebullience. In deference to the production’s source, the lights are left on in BAM’s Harvey Theater and space is cleared up front for cross-legged groundlings. The naked stage, close quarters, and tabula rasa costuming seem an invitation for maximum audience engagement and projection, though only the incest-inclined Cloten is boorish enough to call belabored attention to the permeable fourth wall: He makes feeble frat-boy attempts at chumminess with laughing crowd members during his numerous chest-puffing rants.
Hallett Smith wrote of Cymbeline, “The plot is complex, but the characters are not.” True enough, but tell it to these actors. As Imogen, Arnfield exudes tomboyish rapture with her playful, limber command of the boards. Conjuring Cymbeline’s wife as a poison-beaked swan, Abigail Thaw makes for a ding-dong of a queen witch, while Ramm adds an edge of pathetic desperation to his demi-Iago’s pointless conniving. Rylance makes off with the show, of course. (He was last spotted on these shores largely bereft of nightclothes in Patrice Chéreau’s brilliant anti-eroticon Intimacy.) The solipsistic Posthumus languishes on the bottom rung of Shakespeare’s romantic heroes—and evaporates from Cymbeline‘s midsection—but Rylance’s knowingly recessive performance equips a virtual cipher with touching diffidence and intelligent self-doubt. As cro-mag comic relief Cloten, meanwhile, Rylance waddles about disgorging sleepy grunts and gassy emissions, rearing around with an apelike Dubya gleam in his eye—at once arrogant and utterly lost. Actors so often seem at Shakespeare’s mercy; here they become his able collaborators, and extend a tacit invitation toward the audience to help fill the page.