Perhaps Melly Still's remarkable Royal Shakespeare Company production of Cymbeline, William Shakespeare's romance period play -- unfolding in ancient Britain and written between 1608 and 1610 -- will be pertinent to American audiences now for the juicy fact that at its end it's about divisiveness, reconciliation and redemption. This, at a stateside time when those prickly conditions are bloating the headlines. (Check rsc.org.uk and local listings for screening dates and times.)
With its convoluted plot (about which more shortly), Cymbeline came from Shakespeare's often fevered quill during the fast developing Jacobean period. It also emerged when the playwright was in his mid-forties and apparently entering a much more contemplative phase, or passage.
That's to say that although blood, sweat and tears -- to borrow Winston Churchill's words from a much later United Kingdom world situation -- are rubbed-in-the-face present, as Jacobean drama required, there is also at the play's closing the pungent strain of forgiveness rather than retribution. Shakespeare writes, "Pardon's the word to all." And isn't that what so many across this presidential-campaign-mired nation are currently longing for?
Cymbeline is the troubled King in Shakespeare's play, although among the many liberties Still takes with breathless abandon, King Cymbeline is now Queen Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan). Her daughter Innogen (Bethan Cullinane) has fallen in love with and married upright Posthumous (Hiran Abeysekera) instead of ne'er-do-well Cloten (Marcus Griffiths), whom the Queen prefers for all the wrong reasons.
The dramatic knot is tied so tightly that untying it leads to, first, Posthumous leaving Britannia for more cosmopolitan Rome and then Innogen following him disguised as a lad and thinking to encounter her beloved at an intermediate rural spot.
Some of the ensuing complications involve a stolen bracelet Posthumous gave Innogen and a ring she gave him that gets surrendered in a crooked bet. In a later act, there's a severed head and the body from which it was hacked believed to be Posthumous.
Shakespeare repeated many of his favorite Elizabethan spins in Cymbeline, and there's no point in laying them all out. Still is aware of the challenges and, as her cast races hither and yon, she has done her best to make them at least somewhat plausible. The frenzied characters hustle non-stop through Anna Fleischle's graffiti-covered set (is that a Banksy on one wall?) and in Fleischle's patchwork denim costumes so innovative that smart couturiers may be cribbing them already.
Still's myriad contributions are endlessly exciting and include a symbolic tree trunk sometime removed for the placement of a cave-like pit. (Camera angles for the screenings enhance the effect). The director's few flaws are a penchant for actors going into slow motion at times and -- for the screenings -- having the Italian, French and Latin spoken translated into those tongues and then projected as English subtitles on a wall too far away for reading.
Sometimes it seems as if actors working at the RSC's Stratford-upon-Avon home merely breathe the air of Shakespeare's home and intuitively speak his speeches more trippingly on the tongue than it's heard anywhere else. Although Bevan, Cullinane, Abeysekera, Griffiths, James Clyde, Graham Turner and Kelly Williams have the most to say, there's no one in the ensemble less than top-drawer. And that's in a troupe where several women play male roles, though not vice versa.
For reasons at least implied above, Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's less beloved plays. Nonetheless, Still strives to make a strong argument for it -- and succeeds. It could be that this is the best take on the play we could ever hope to see.