Some artists end with a bang, with final works that
effectively sum up their brilliant careers: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and late
quartets, Rembrandt’s reflective
last portraits, Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors.
Less so Shakespeare, whose towering achievement teetered near the end. In the
least beloved of his late plays, "Cymbeline," an oddly resistible grab bag of
recycled plots and unmagical absurdities, the confused heroine Imogen refers to
"a fog . . . that I cannot look through." She could be describing our view of
If anyone can blast away the haze, it is the matter-of-factly bold English
company Cheek by Jowl, justly renowned for its bracing, remarkably rust-free
of the classics. In a sprawling but never leisurely production now at the
Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater, director Declan Donnellan and
designer Nick Ormerod give "Cymbeline" a clarity and intensity that make the
nearly as much as it creaks.
It begins in a baffling welter of recriminations and backstory and ends with a
scene of reunions and revelations so comprehensive they’re giggle-inducing. The
action stretched between these two posts is epic in scale if not in drama. The
baddies here are a shallow, venal lot: a smiling witch of a queen (Gwendoline
Christie), her preening son Cloten (Tom Hiddleston) and a skeezy Italian
dandy, Iachimo (Guy Flanagan, doing a gravelly goombah accent). The blundering,
impotent monarch, Cymbeline (David Collings), conspicuously merits neither the
crown nor the play’s title.
Hero and heroine, truth be told, aren’t much more substantial: the
long-suffering Imogen, played by Jodie McNee with a startling fierceness, and
exiled husband Posthumus, rendered with dreamy sensitivity by Hiddleston. This
double-casting flourish - a leading man who switches between devil and angel
by changing his coat, eyewear and vocal register - is more attention-getting
Donnellan and Ormerod, who’ve set the action in mid-20thcentury limbo, use the
Harvey’s cavernous stage to scintillating effect, overlapping scenes with
cinematic fluidity and isolating choice moments of ghost-like communion
between characters who aren’t strictly on the same page.
In one crystalline example, the play’s most intriguing character,the valet
Pisanio (Richard Cant), stands between Imogen and Posthumus, young lovers
estranged to the point of murderous revenge by a manufactured lie. Donnellan’s
staging beautifully conveys the good servant’s divided loyalties and the
distance he must travel to bridge them.
What a distance that proves to be: from Rome to Wales, through a wager and a
war. This crashing "Cymbeline" is never less than watchable, even if the strain
to entertain is occasionally palpable: Cloten and his sidekicks crowding a
microphone for a Four Seasonsesque take on "Hark, hark! the lark"; Imogen,
disguised as a boy, getting manhandled by a pair of simpletons; a gratuitous
gory necrophilia. The fog shrouding the Bard’s later work doesn’t require quite
such heavy lifting.
CYMBELINE. By William Shakespeare. Directed by Declan Donnellan. BAM Harvey
Theater, 651 Fulton St., Brooklyn. Through May 12. 718-636-4100. Seen Wednesday.