Cymbeline is, in a word, a doozy. It is rarely taught in schools because the plot is so darn complicated; the chief reason for this is that not one, not two, but at least five characters, at some point or another, intentionally or inadvertently, go about this play in disguise. While this makes for a tough read, director Antoni Cimolino proves that it can be significantly more entertaining to watch.
Going to the theatre, we expect to be entertained but in the best cases, we are also moved. After largely overlooking them in my annual pre-show lecture to my ever-patient mother, I was most touched by the performances by EB Smith and Ian Lake, who played the roles of Guiderius and Arviragus. These characters know themselves as Polydore and Cadwal, the supposed sons of Morgan, actually Belarius, a courtier that had been banished for treason and took the boys with him into exile, twenty years earlier. One appealing feature was, no doubt, their brawniness, but more so, I was touched by their bright-eyed innocence, their playfulness with each other, their genuine affection for the old man who they think is their father, and the way their hearts open wide to accommodate the beautiful boy Fidele, actually Innogen incognito, who they take in as a little brother for no more reason than “Love’s reason’s without reason.”
The main love-match in the play is Innogen and her betrothed, Posthumous Leonatus. King Cymbeline banishes him when he finds out that they are all-but married. As Cymbeline’s only remaining biological child, Innogen must marry for the kingdom’s advantage rather than her heart’s. Exiled on the continent, Posthumous’s false friend Iachimo tricks him into believing that Innogen is unfaithful, and Posthumous sends his servant, Pisanio, to kill her. Charmed by her, he reveals his master’s plans and tells her to disguise herself as a boy and hide. Clearly, Pisanio is far nobler than his master, who I usually resign alongside Othello and Claudio as weak and gullible, unworthy of my tears. Onstage, though, Posthumous redeems himself, not through his own actions, but through the love and forgiveness of Innogen, who literally throws herself at him in the concluding moments of the play. At that final moment, she is no longer the gangly Fidele, but the tragic princess for whom things are finally going right.
The beauty of the Shakespearean Romance is that the Bard never lets too many bodies pile up onstage before he sets everything right. Belarius comes forward to tell Cymbeline that his sons are alive, consequently shoving castle-raised Innogen back to third in line for inheritance. This resolution is unsettling, but characteristic of the Romances: things have changed for the better, but there’s no rule dictating that the result is fully just (or just on today’s terms). This moment should leave readers with a sour taste in their mouths, but Cimolino chose to overlook this aspect. This omission leaves the play’s conclusion with less of that unsettling dimension that we should be exposed to when watching the Problem Plays and Romances, but I applaud the director’s focus on the other crucial aspects of the genre: redemption and reconciliation. The “Evil Stepmother” of a Queen is dead, and the King finds his only daughter alive and able to reconcile with her true love, clearly caring more for their reunion than the throne she no longer has claim to. The play ends with a glorious group hug, a moment which might sound cheesy in print, but one that brought tears to my eyes as I was the first to jump up and give the cast its much-deserved standing ovation.