Cymbeline, Barbican Theatre, 2 June 2012
Ninagawa’s Japanese production began with an emphasis on intimacy. The audience entered the theatre to be confronted with what looked like an onstage dressing room complete with a long dressing table littered with the actors’ personal effects. The cast appeared in dribs and drabs in street clothes to prepare for the performance, checking makeup, chatting and playing Go.
This showed us the real people behind the characters in a very mundane and familiar setting.
Without any fanfare the cast suddenly stood in a stiff line at the edge of the platform on which the dressing room stood and ripped off their outer garments to reveal their character costume underneath. They bowed before disappearing offstage.
The platform disappeared backstage as the lights dimmed and a number of rectangular wall blocks moved in an interweaving pattern like clouds in a dream.
Images of the Roman she-wolf and imperial eagle floated into view and disappeared, taking us from the very real world of the dressing room into a fairytale world of unreality: the world of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.
The tall blocks were arranged into a grey backdrop creating a space that was taller than it was deep, representing Britain.
In this Britain the Queen (Ran Ohtori) was an archetypal cruel stepmother whose air of casual cruelty was offset by a sweeping cloak that made her entrances and exits all the more dramatic.
Posthumus (Hiroshi Abe) was uncommonly tall, which made him tower over Imogen (Shinobu Otake). Such was Cymbeline’s (Kohtaloh Yoshida) gruff, warlike demeanour that his courtiers were genuinely worried that he might go on the attack when venting his anger at Imogen. But age and infirmity meant that his outburst appeared to make him sick.
Pisanio (Keita Oishi) was a low-class dope in a silly hat, which made for a neat juxtaposition with the high-class dope Cloten (Masanobu Katsumura), whose ineptitude turned into a running gag.
Cloten had extreme difficulty removing his sword from its scabbard and once done found it impossible to replace. His childish, impetuous solution was to simply let the sword drop to the floor for one of his lackeys to pick up.
A second running gag saw him pay for favours by handing over a money bag but forgetting its cord which still hung round his neck. As the grateful recipient withdrew, Cloten was pulled to the ground. Just the imbecility you might expect from someone with a deeply unfashionable pudding basin haircut.
A sweep of blocks and the scene switched to Rome. The stage was dominated by a huge Capitoline wolf. A group of louche pleasure seekers reclined on the ground. Iachimo (Yosuke Kubozuka) lay underneath the statue, a quiff of hair atop the shaved sides of his head announcing his mischievous character that could not resist putting Posthumus’ claims about his wife’s chastity to the test.
After a brief scene in which the Queen threw her ‘medicine’ bottle at Pisanio’s feet, Iachimo arrived in Britain on a mission to seduce Imogen. He brought her a large bouquet of flowers and turned on the charm, skilfully construing his pass at her as a test of her virtue.
The bedroom scene looked eerily beautiful. Imogen slept on a bed behind a curtain lit by candles. Iachimo emerged from the trunk, which was in front of the curtain, and stealthily slipped behind the thin curtain to survey the woman it shielded.
A spotlight illuminated Imogen’s wrist as Iachimo removed her bracelet.
From sublimity of Imogen’s beauty, the action shifted back to the ridiculousness of Cloten’s inept wooing of her. He assembled ruff-wearing musicians to provide a serenade. The King and Queen discovered him at work and the King talked to him slowly as if he were an idiot.
The “meanest garment” of Posthumus that Imogen said was dearer to her than Cloten was translated back into English as “underpants”. Cloten became incensed at this unflattering comparison with Posthumus’ underwear. He jumped on top of Imogen, but she managed to throw him off.
Back in Rome by the she-wolf statue, Posthumus stared in angry disbelief at the alleged evidence of Imogen’s unfaithfulness. With his faith dented, Posthumus stood spotlit to castigate womankind.
As he exited upstage, Posthumus met two groups of Romans and Britons entering in the opposite direction before they faced off. Cymbeline became infuriated with Cloten’s idiotic comments, telling him to shut up.
Imogen set off for Milford Haven thinking to find Posthumus there, but not realising that her husband had instructed Pisanio to use this ruse as an opportunity to kill her.
After a brief introduction to Belarius (Tetsuro Sagawa) and his sons setting off hunting before a backdrop of their cave entrance, we saw Pisanio preparing Imogen for her departure. Instead of a “cloak-bag” an entire trunk of apparel stood ready to provide Imogen with a male disguise.
She walked upstage along a path of light, her tiny figure disappearing into the distance, gradually swallowed by the vast space of the Barbican stage. This formed a very impressive image on which to bring the first half of the performance to a close.
After the interval we saw Imogen dressed in her disguise as the page Fidele. Cymbeline rejected Roman rule, and when the Queen realised that Imogen was out of her way she swept away in her long cloak cackling like a comedy villain.
Cloten confronted Pisanio demanding to know Imogen’s whereabouts. He struggled to draw his sword, a pitiful sight that eventually caused Pisanio to take pity and extract it for him, enabling Cloten to make his threat. Unable to sheath the sword, he let it drop to the ground. He gave Pisanio a purse of money kept the string of it round his neck so that he was pulled by it when Pisanio moved away.
Cloten put on Posthumus’ clothes, but they were too big for him. The arms of the garment covered the ends of his hands. He made his murderous intent towards Posthumus plain by holding a cloth just below his own head and moving it back and forth as if it were severed.
After the comedy of Imogen’s introduction to Belarius in which she tried out her male voice, we saw Cloten, still swamped by Posthumus’ oversized clothes, arrive outside the cave.
The family went off hunting leaving the sick Fidele behind. Imogen took some of Pisanio’s cordial, while outside Cloten crawled into view. He fought offstage with Guiderius (Kenji Urai) who brought in Cloten’s severed head.
The sound of a harp presaged the death of Fidele, and she was buried alongside Cloten under a large pile of flowers.
Imogen woke up next to the headless body and, assuming by the clothes that it was Posthumus, daubed her face with the blood.
The Roman ambassador entered in spotlight stage right and took up Fidele as his servant.
Posthumus stood with a bloody cloth, spotlit in red, with a blood red moon behind him, convinced that it proved Imogen to be dead.
The ensuing battle was staged in slow motion. Sometimes this can look clumsy, but in Ninagawa’s hands it actually worked. In the midst of battle Cymbeline could see each of the heroic acts he was later to reward.
The captive Posthumus was put in shackles. As he lay bound on the ground, the ghosts of his family filed across the stage followed by the figure of Jupiter riding a large eagle, operated by a hidden wheeled hoist, to drop a scroll of prophecy.
After the British victory, all the Roman prisoners were gathered stage right, while the heroes of the day, Belarius and his sons, stood stage left. Cymbeline knighted the sons for having fought so bravely.
The Physician’s (Kunihiro Iida) news of the Queen’s death and confession of her faithless crimes was comic in its ridiculousness, something for which we had been prepared thanks to her earlier manic villainy. The King’s reaction, a mixture of surprise and relief, also brought laughter.
And as the various threads of the story unravelled the Physician’s admission that he had forgotten to mention swapping the poison for a sleeping draft was similarly received.
With Posthumus and Imogen reunited and the King’s sons restored to him, the action shifted into a slow motion party as the cast left the stage.
The production was characterised by an epic use of space. The cast were very often dwarfed by the sheer expanse of stage they inhabited and by the verticality of the set blocks. This tended to make the actors look insignificant.
The fairytale element in the story led unfortunately to a lack of psychological depth in the characterisations. It looked wonderful and provided great spectacle for an audience used to cinema and high-definition television. But it was also strangely lacking in real warmth, as if the immense size of the sets and stock nature of the characters had drained the production of the intimacy with which it had so promisingly begun.