Shakespeare made Supple

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The Actors' Shakespeare Project, 'Cymbeline', Act 2 scene 2

Imagine an ordinary looking, low-ceilinged clothing shop. Clear it of all of its shop-fittings (except its changing rooms) and turn it into an empty performance space in the round. You’ll need to install four lighting stands, one in each corner. These also mark the entrances and exits. Along one side of the wall, there is positioned a row of some half dozen chairs. There the actors will sit during the performance and create percussive, musical effects for each other.


It is bitingly cold outside and the snow is still toughly present in heaps along the pavements. One of the greatest of all universities, Harvard, is just up the road. A bar is open next door and its dull thud of music and laughter can be heard from inside this found auditorium as evening falls on Elm Street, Somerville, Massachusetts.

It was part of the romance of being in Boston last week that I should see a dress-rehearsal of Cymbeline presented by The Actors’ Shakespeare Project.

I must confess that my heart always leaps at the prospect of seeing Cymbeline. This was the play that enabled Virginia Woolf to realise afresh Shakespeare’s greatness; it is Cymbeline that catches Mrs Dalloway’s imagination as she walks down Piccadilly and peers into the window of Hatchard’s bookshop. And I’ve never seen a bad production. At its heart is a truly resilient theatrical and narrative motor.

The Actors’ Shakespeare Project audaciously submitted its entire production to the joy of simple and supple story-telling. There were just seven actors which made for some creative and meaningful doubling. Maya Lowry doubled as The Queen and Belaria (sensibly feminized which also gave the impression of a destroying and redemptive mother-figure in the body of a single actor); De’Lon Grant took upon himself Posthumus Leonatus and Cloten (the husband and predator of Princess Imogen); only Brooke Hardman’s totally believable Imogen did not double and remained resolutely herself for the whole of the evening, as she braved the many challenges of the story.

I like to say that it’s imperative not to miss the first 65 lines of Cymbeline which represent Shakespearian exposition at its most intense. The opening dialogue between two anonymous gentlemen serves to wind-up the rest of evening. Here, this exchange was sensibly shared by the whole company which helped to establish some of the characterisation.

It was a leaner text than usual, and was missing, for example, the moment that made the boy John Keats cry, that is Imogen hearing about the departure of her banished husband from Pisanio:

‘I would have broke mine eye-strings, cracked them, but
To look upon him till the diminution
Of space had pointed him sharp as my needle;
Nay, followed him till he had melted from
The smallness of a gnat to air, and then
Have turned my eye and wept.’ (1.3.17-22).

Gone, too, was one of Shakespeare’s most misogynistic moments, Posthumous’s thirty-four-lined, attacking soliloquy beginning ‘Is there no way for men to be, but women / Must be half-workers?’ (2.5). Giacomo did not compare the mole on Imogen’s left breast to the bottom of a cowslip (2.2.37-9); Imogen did not beg pity from heaven when she awoke next to a headless corpse that she believes to be her husband (4.2.304-7); Posthumus himself did not experience a theophany of Jupiter, or receive the prophecy about England.

And, yet, whilst I missed them, it didn’t matter overall, because director Doug Lockwood’s commitment to making the whole story utterly real and enjoyable was what took centre-stage. The denuoment was every bit as unlikely and wonderful – ‘Does the world go round?’ (5.6.222) – as it always is.

This was an exhilarating evening, characterized by a great sense of ensemble. I wish we had more companies closer to home who are as fleet as foot as The Actors’ Shakespeare Project.

And all this after only eleven days of rehearsal!

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson

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