One opinion of this infrequently performed play remains entrenched in my mind, however, and it’s worth repeating if only to provide a segue-way for a point I want to make. It Samuel Johnson, from his 1765 edition of the play, and it’s as over-the-top as it is wrong:
“To remark (on) the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names and manners of different times and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection and too gross for aggravation.”
That’s crazy talk, unless we are to believe that Johnson found the events that transpire in the “system of life” that governs “The Comedy of Errors” and “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” completely realistic. But I cite it because it’s a fair summation of much of the commentary on “Cymbeline,” which critics have seemed to think was somehow beneath Shakespeare – maybe he was bored, maybe the fire in his belly had snuffed out, etc. Why – this line of thinking goes – would the author of “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Othello” and “Macbeth” write … this?
If we can ask why the author of “King Lear” would have stooped to “Cymbeline,” then we might also ask why the director of “Schindler’s List” could possibly have directed a fourth Indiana Jones film, especially after the sublime perfection of having his hero literally ride off into the sunset in the third. Artists do what they do … and even if the English language’s greatest writer had produced only a “Hamlet” or a “Lear,” wouldn’t he have been entitled to write whatever he damn well pleased?
As for the utterly preposterous setup – the bet against Imogen’s virtue, the kidnapped sons reunited with their sister in a cave, unable (apparently) to discern that he is really a she, and the avalanche of revelations in the final act – one only need recall that Shakespeare did this sort of thing all the time. Even Lear brims with scenarios that don’t pass the straight-face test. If we’re going to be a stickler, then no: King Cymbeline probably would not forgive the exiled Belarius for kidnapping and raising to adulthood his two sons, no more than, say, Gloucester would believe that he’d actually survived leaping off the Dover Cliffs.
I digress, but the point is this: “Cymbeline” is regarded as “minor” Shakespeare. It’s generated relatively little comment over the centuries (while ruminations on “Hamlet” alone could stock several bookcases at a library). There’s been confusion over what kind of play it is, because it transcends genre – as much of Shakespeare does. It’s also a complicated play, with its multiple storylines, and thus difficult to follow. That said, I would add that my wife, who did not read the play before we saw it, understood it perfectly well.
Which brings me to OSF’s production, which runs through Oct. 11 in the outdoor Elizabethan Theater. Director Bill Rauch and his dramaturge teamed up for a clever edit of the first scene. In the script, the unnecessarily lengthy setup is provided by a “gentleman” to a visitor of the court. OSF wisely broke the section up, handing the lines to Anthony Heald, who spoke directly to the audience and gestured to the actors (briefly frozen in place) to make it all clear. It’s a brilliant move. Had they not done this, I suspect a lot of people would have been lost from the get-go.
I enjoyed reading the play, and I loved seeing it come alive on the outdoor stage under the stars. OSF imagines it with the visual language of a fairy tale. The queen (a wonderful Robin Goodrin-Nordril) who plots to kill Imogen’s husband Posthumus appears to have stepped out of the Brothers Grimm, going so far as to enclose the poison (or rather, what she believes is poison) inside a shiny red apple. Heald, as the court doctor, is amusing from beginning to end, drawing some of the biggest laughs of the evening.
Kenajuan Bentley is pitch-perfect as the scheming Italian Iachimo, a role that the BBC production from the 1980s took far too seriously. I confess to being a little underwhelmed by Dawn-Lyen Gardner as Imogen until she started pretending to be a man – only then does she become utterly charming. Actually, the entire supporting cast is stellar, which helps in a play in which the main characters – Cymbeline, Imogen and Posthumus – aren’t terribly interesting, on the page or the stage.
So no, “Cymbeline” isn’t one of Shakespeare’s best plays. But it’s a testament to his genius that even one of his “minor” plays can make for an evening of terrific theater in the right hands. OSF’s “Cymbeline” is wonderful and even achieves moments of transcendence, thanks to the occasional presence on stage of the play’s “ghosts” and Erica Sullivan’s remarkable performance as the Soothsayer. Ultimately, the production affirms a feeling I’ve had since seeing their amazing production of “Coriolanus” a few years ago: There is no “minor” Shakespeare.