In ‘You might well ask’, my first text about Cymbeline (pages 616-621 in Shakespeare calling – the book) I dealt with the historical aspect of the Roman-English political conflict, which was a good choice. With this second reading I find that the play has much more to offer. On the surface it has many of Shakespeare’s oft-used themes: resourceful young woman who dresses in men’s clothing to chase down the weak young man she’s in love with, cruel father, evil queen, false accusations of infidelity, nobility in commoner disguise. Always good for studies of character and society.
Since reading this play last, we have added two film versions of it to our collection. We have previously seen the excellent BBC version. In this analysis I will simply compare the three films, all of whom make good use of these themes.
But first a summary of the play.
Innogen, the daughter of King Cymbeline, has married his foster son Posthumous. The king is enraged and banishes him. In exile he meets Giacomo who wagers with him that Innogen is not faithful. Giacomo goes to England, fails to make Innogen believe that Posthumous has been unfaithful to her, but succeeds in spying on her and falsifying evidence showing that she has been unfaithful to Posthumous with him. When told this, Posthumous rages that he will kill her. Meanwhile, Cymbeline’s two sons who had been kidnapped as infants have been raised as hunters in the wilderness. Cymbeline’s evil queen’s son is in love with Innogen and vows to get revenge on her for loving Posthumous instead. Furthermore, the Romans demand tribute from England. Cymbeline refuses. It’s all quite complex, in other words. However, it is not a tragedy so after many twists and turns it ends happily.
So, to the movies.
First out, the one we’ve already seen, the BBC version from 1982, directed by Elijah Moshinksy, with Helen Mirren, Robert Lindsay, Claire Bloom, Paul Jesson and Michael Pennington. The encounters between Innogen (Mirren) and Giacomo (Lindsay) are among the most enthralling I’ve ever seen, visually strong, disturbing and emotionally intense. Pennington’s portrayal of Posthumous’s neurotic obsession with Innogen’s supposed infidelity is strongly done. This play has more depth and complexity of character than the silliness of the story would suggest and the cast, with Mirren as its leading beacon, does more than justice to Shakespeare’s fascinating study of the individuals in class, gender and political conflicts of Roman Britain. This is one of the BBC box’s best; one of the best productions, full stop.
Next, the RSC version from 2016, directed by Melly Still, with Bethan Cullinane, Oliver Johnstone, James Clyde, Marcus Griffiths and Hiran Abeysekera. There is some gender-bending which works well enough. The costumes are a motley mess of bizarre semi-modern clothing, the scenery surreal, the music eerie and at times funky. The tone is often that of a hammy farce, bringing occasional titters from the audience. The non-British characters speak Italian, French and Latin, which also works. For those not familiar with the play there are screens with the text. We had subtitles. The surreal absurdity distracts from rather than enhances the play. I find the visual and musical theatricality – at the same time both minimalistic and elaborate – appealing but it doesn’t reach much emotional height. It is interesting to watch but has almost none of the depth of feeling of the BBC version and makes much less impact, though it lifts at the dramatic end.
Finally, the 2014 version, directed by Michael Almereyda, with Dakota Johnson, Ethan Hawke, Milla Jovovich, Anton Yelchin, Penn Badgley, and Ed Harris. This modern-day version generally got terrible reviews and indeed it is confusing. Cymbeline is the King of the Briton Motorcycle gang which is at war with a crooked cop gang. Otherwise the story is the same and the lines are Shakespeare. There are cars, bicycles, cigarettes, T-shirts, jeans, hoodies, black leather jackets, guns and more guns, mobile phones/cameras, American teenagers, skateboards, Google and President Obama on TV. It’s all curiously remote. Many of the monologues are done as voice-overs and much of the dialogue is choppy and low-key, relaxed, spoken with a shrug. In its own peculiar way, it’s faithful to Shakespeare’s play. And in its own peculiar way, it works. It’s one of the most interesting modernisation spin-offs of Shakespeare I’ve seen.
That’s the three of them. A comparison? Almost impossible. They are so different that they might not be the same play. Except that they are. For a straightforward serious production, the BBC version can’t be beat for the acting and powerful emotional impact. For a sort of modern version with interesting innovations that don’t always seem relevant, the RSC version has its merits and should be seen. For the weird smack-in-you-face-today’s-reality version, don’t miss Almereyda.
In fact, don’t miss any of them. And really, don’t miss this play. It may be obscure, it may be long and rambling, but it grows more powerful and complex with each reading.
After all, it is Shakespeare.