Friday, December 6, 2019

Cymbeline: A Tale of Two Toms (2007)


"I think a part of the reason why Shakespeare is performed is because the words may have changed and superficially the way we live our lives may have changed but the emotions are the same. And a play like Cymbeline, it's about so many universal things that we still feel like love and loss and betrayal and jealousy and incomprehension." 

While in New York for Betrayal Broadway, I took a trip back in time to revisit Tom Hiddleston's first NYC stage performance in Cymbeline. It was the perfect double feature because both plays feature a minimalist set design so your focus is entirely on the actors. Tom performed with Cheek By Jowl at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) from May 2-12, 2007. 

The Declan Donnellan directed production featured a breakout cast of soon-to-be household names and familiar faces including Tom, Gwendoline Christie, Jodie McNee, Guy Flanagan, Laurence Spellman, and John Macmillan. Stage and costume design by Nick Ormerod. 

An evil stepmother, an invading army, a headless corpse, ghosts and a divine visit from Jupiter hurtle us towards an astonishing conclusion in this saga of politics, the supernatural and love. Lynchpin of the story is one of Shakespeare's greatest female characters, the impulsive and sensual Imogen. 

Even by Shakespearean standards Cymbeline is a play with a lot going on. It's listed as a tragedy but reads more as an absurd comedy. If you took every Shakespeare play and decided to make a movie parody - you would get Cymbeline. Forbidden romance? Check. Scheming step-mother? Check. A woman disguised as a boy? Check. Somebody dies but doesn't really die? Check. Long lost heir to the throne magically reappears? Check. A bunch of dudes fighting over a woman who has no interest in them? Check check check. 

Tom Hiddleston was on double duty playing the drastically different characters, Posthumus and Cloten. Tom went on to win an Olivier Award for his dual role. 

Posthumus: Orphan. Adopted by King Cymbeline. Secretly marries the King's daughter Imogen. Everyone reacts well... not. Banished to Italy. Reacts well... not.  

Cloten: Queen's son from a previous marriage. Wants to marry Imogen so he can become King. Shakespearean equivalent of an arrogant frat boy.
Questionable seduction tactics.  

It is uncommon for an actor to take on both roles. Tom talks about the challenge of wearing both masks:

"I tended to think that I could bring more of myself - Tom Hiddleston the actor - to Posthumus and that Cloten was some extreme character that I just had to play but Declan was absolutely insistent that Cloten had a mask and Posthumus had another mask. I, as an actor, inhabited both of those masks fully and with equal commitment. But with two people who seem to be standing side by side, their truth is different. And it's been fascinating to be inside the head of two people for whom the truth is different. The color of things look different."

Having watched the play I can definitely see the Cloten within Posthumus. Posthumus is marketed as the great romantic hero but he makes a bet on his wife and then tries to have her killed when he thinks she's been unfaithful? Er, sounds like a Cloten move to me! More on that in a minute. 

Unlike film or television, when you play multiple characters on stage you don't have the benefit of hours in a makeup chair to make each character look different. So, how can you tell them apart? The easy answer is Posthumus wears glasses and Cloten does not. 

That tiny feature takes Tom from Clark Kent to Superman. Even though both characters have the same accent, they sound different. Even though they occupy the same body, the move different. Even though they wear the same clothes, they wear them differently. This is what won Tom Hiddleston the Olivier Award. 

The play begins with the young lovers Imogen and Posthumus being torn apart by an angry mob at court. 

Before Posthumus is exiled to Italy, they exchange tokens of the love. Imogen gives him a ring. Posthumus gives her a bracelet. 

In Italy, Posthumus meets Iachimo and makes a bet that his wife would never be unfaithful. What does he wager? The ring. 

Iachimo comes back with tales of how he seduced Imogen. What proof does he bring? The bracelet. 

Meanwhile Cloten is living his best life. Cloten is the OG Loki. He enjoys being bad. Whether he's plotting to take the throne or gossiping with his friends...

...or sneaking into to Imogen's bedroom to serenade her. In the play this song and dance number is about four minutes long, and would make 'Nsync in their heyday jealous. It didn't work out to well for the Clo Bros though. I blame the song. Hark the Lark isn't exactly a mood setter. Next time try some Boyz II Men. 

So, now Posthumus decides to send a letter to Imogen so that she will meet up with him but he really plans to have her killed. Okay, that escalated quickly. Imogen escapes by disguising herself as boy. Who does she randomly stumble upon after her escape? Her long lost brothers. But she doesn't know they're her brothers. And they don't know she's their sister. They don't even know she's a female Wait, there's more. 

My boy Cloten, decides to make another attempt to woo Imogen. He gets it in his mind that she only prefers Posthumus because of his clothes so he puts on his coat to disguise himself. Oh my sweet summer child. Of course, he also just happens to stumble upon Imogen's long lost brothers who kill and behead him. Who finds the body? Imogen. And because he's wearing Posthumus's coat she believes Posthumus is dead. Seriously, Shakespeare was trolling us. 

Enter Posthumus. He arrives back in Britain as an Italian infantryman. Changes into a British uniform. And then switches to an Italian Officer's uniform. Yes he does the costume changes onstage. Who does he encounter? Iachimo. Eventually Posthumus, Iachimo, and Imogen (in disguise) all find themselves in front of King Cymbeline.

Iachimo confesses his lies. Imogen reveals herself. The war is over. Cloten and the Queen Cymbeline reunites with his long lost sons. Imogen is free to marry Posthumus now. Although why would you want to after all his bs? Sis we need to talk. Everybody is happy the end. 

Thank you to the Brooklyn Academy of Music and New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for allowing me access to their archives for this review.

Video clips from the ARTE Documentary on Cheek by Jowl's Cymbeline. Production photographs taken by Keith Pattison. You can find more information, photos, interviews, and a copy of the playtext on the Cheek by Jowl website

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