Cymbeline has a reputation as one of Shakespeare’s hardest plays to stage. In Cheek By Jowl’s superb production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, director Declan Donnellan and designer Nick Ormerod approach staging problems the way a mathematical genius tackles a thorny theorem—with astonishing creativity and real delight in the challenge. The spare sets and moody lighting form an elegant backdrop for some of the trickiest and most effective blocking I’ve ever seen—there are often two or three subplots coexisting on the stage at the same moment, and the depth of the space brings the audience into a vast, compelling world. The physical interplay between characters—including characters in co-existing, but separate plotlines--underscores the wit and hijinx of the play itself. Cymbeline has been by turns classified as a comedy and as a tragedy, and this production explores all of the possibilities, with chic film noir costumes and styling and many nods to the great films of the 30s and 40s that were at once understated and winningly screwball. Like those films, this production stealthily moves from romantic comedy to scorching political satire. Audience members were often doubled over with laughter, yet the lurid images of Imogen caressing a bloody, headless corpse and of the king and his newly embraced sons facing a roaring crowd are indelible.
Performance-wise, Cheek by Jowl focuses here on creating a true, bantering, fast-paced ensemble piece, and each of the players is as much a visual entity or a design element of this noir world, as a performer or character, and most are re-imagined as classic cinematic icons. Gwendoline Christie’s stepmother/Queen is an evil ice-blonde bombshell, clutching her much-shorter husband to her breasts and cooing in baby talk. Guy Flanagan’s leading-man looks and soft Italian accent give his Iachimo the perfect oozy, lecherous charm. David Colling’s king Cymbeline is the consummate slick politician, complete with a Ronald Reagan haircut and an almost-terrifying warmth as he greets “the people.” Tom Hiddleson steals every scene in a virtuosic dual performance as a kind of strawman Posthumus and a swaggering, repellently pleased-with-himself, entitled Cloten. He is the kind of rare actor who commands attention just by walking onstage. Donnellan gives these actors a kind of free reign to fully inhabit the space of their performance, of the world of Cymbeline, encountering each other in a series of events that take on a life of their own, an independence from the usual confines of the stage. There is something very intimate, in a romantic sense, about the way the characters and the design bring each other to life—it’s unsurprising that the director and designer are a couple. The characters seduce and spurn each other, banter artfully, advance and retreat, caress and avoid. In one hilarious scene, Imogen (Jodie McNee) in drag, dressed as a sort of thirties vagabond, repeatedly approaches her beloved Posthumus and he unceremoniously pushes her away, again and again, like an overaffectionate stray dog. In earlier moments, Imogen (in a blood-red dress) tauntingly seduces the loathsome Cloten even as she rejects him. The seamless blend of physical and verbal action brings a contemporary freshness to Shakespeare’s dialogue. Ultimately, the production is unforgettable—the world created on the stage is so unique that it stays alive in your mind after you’ve left the theater.