WSC, Day 1: Cymbeline

The thought snuck up on me last night while I was watching. It’s not the sort of thing one likes to admit. Probably if I’d made it to the pub I’d have been argued out of it, but I needed to bring my daughter Olivia back to the B&B, and it was raining, and I wanted to be able to get up and swim this morning — which I did, despite lingering jet lag.

Maybe it’s just #slatepitchy and counter-intuitive, or an attempt to find some clarity in a wildly digressive production (paper dolls! dialogue in Latin, French, and Italian! Cymbeline as a Queen!), but I’ve never before seen a Cymbeline in which I was so sympathetic to Cloten. He actually underplayed his nativist faux-Brexit rhetoric, which uncomfortably transforms John of Gaunt’s rousing patriotism into small-minded farce. But — and perhaps this is testament to a somewhat uncentered show — watching last night I found Cloten’s politics felt equally as compelling (or not) as the bland internationalism of Posthumus and Caius Lucius. What, I wondered, if this play were really performed for Leave voters, or Trumpkins on holiday? Could Cloten be the failed hero? They didn’t go all the way there  last night, but I had the strange feeling that they weren’t that far from it.

It’s not possible to sympathize with Cloten all the way through. He’s a fool, an attempted murderer, and he dies aspiring to a rape he can never get himself into position to attempt. But, as Olivia reminded me, in his violence and misogyny he’s not very different from his rival Posthumus. Each of these two men thinks Innogen has chosen another. Posthumus reacts by ordering her death, Cloten by chasing her into Wales with intent to ravish. Why is it that we prefer the first suitor again?

Olivia also observed that last night’s Cloten had “nice hair.” I’m sure she and I are both responding to Marcus Griffeths’s oddly cast physical charisma, which made Cloten overshadow Posthumus. I imagine the RSC will find some better parts for him soon!

In my Cloten-centric speculation, I wonder if the play might suggest that both British chauvinism and Roman internationalism are bad? Not equally so, perhaps, but…

Olivia also observed that of Innogen’s suitors, the only one who took no for an answer was Iachimo, who never quite assaults or attacks her, despite his creepy leering while she’s asleep. Maybe, Olivia suggested, Imogen should dump both Posthumus and Cloten, smooch a bit with pretty Iachimo, and then run off into the woods and be a bad ass with her Welsh siblings. A Katniss Everdeen revision of Shakespeare?

The brother-and-sister pair of pastoral heroes, the elder of whom kills Cloten and tosses his bloody clod pole into a mountain stream, suggest that there are better nativisims than Cloten’s, or the 21c nativisms of assorted orange-maned clowns on either side of the Atlantic.  It struck me last night that the off-stage moment when Guideria/us cut off Cloten’s head without knowing his identity has a political subtext, in which a natural Britain decapitates the island’s false heir. The Welsh foresters who are here long-lost siblings seem better matches for Innogen than any of the courtly characters — except possibly for Caius Lucius, to whom she sidled up to toward the end of the very long final scene during which I lost sight of Posthumus entirely for some time.

Cloten wasn’t there, of course, since he died in the previous act. But Queen Cymbeline’s ambivalent back and forth with Rome, Britain’s military victory, the return of her heirs from their pastoral education, and the general mayhem of this play’s over-plottedness suggested — at least to me, at least a little bit — that we missed his awkward voicing of patriotism. Just a little bit.

I doubt that any staging of Cymbeline will ever want to go fully pro-Cloten. But amid the whirl of this messy production, I saw a different side of the buffoon. That, plus a wonderfully clear and moving performance by Bethan Culinane as Innogen, made a nice start to this week in Stratford.


  1. One note of caution: Posthumus was played by the stand-in and he was OK, but not up to the quality of the rest of the cast. He was also somewhat lacking in charisma. I wonder if some of your comments would be differently informed with the usual Posthumus in place?

    • I learned that he was the understudy after writing this, Mike, and I think you’re right. The usual P. played Laertes last night in Hamlet, so he’d have similar physical size — ie, much smaller than Cloten — but I suspect would not have been overshadowed quite as much. Oddly enough, I feel somewhat grateful for the understudy, b/c it opened up, for me at least, this strange, probably untenable, certainly unlikely, way of thinking about Cloten. It’s interesting to think about!

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