Meanwhile, in Colchester...
Oh, and I was so enjoying it too.
Why it all went wrong, I don't know. The first three Acts are lovely. Unexceptional perhaps, unmemorable certainly, but the ball is most definitely being kept in the air. And then Act IV blunders into view and it all goes Shakespear-shaped all over again.
I suppose this is a way of dating the play. Rhyming Billy f*cked up in the same way twice, at around the same time, here as in Antony & Cleopatra. To be fair, it never gets quite as addled as Tony & Pat, but there are moments of what I can only describe as momentary lapses into bollocks. I don't mean the extraordinary reliance upon geographical coincidence, or the extraordinary reliance upon people's inability to recognise each other when wearing different hats, or the extraordinary reliance upon an absurdly implausible premise. When I say random bollocks I mean Leonatus' behaviour in Act 5 - in Scene 1 he switches sides from the Italians to the British, then in Scene 3 - barely a minute of stage-time later - he switches back to the Italian side again. I mean, eh?
This section of the play, the part concerning the battle, is all rather messy and confused. However, it isn't helped by the BBC F*CKING IT UP. Yes, even worse than what they did to Antony & Cleopatra. The play has been rendered not merely incomprehensible but absurd, by some mind-bogglingly ill-judged cuts and scene re-ordering.
To understand why Guiderius murders Clotus, we need to see Clotus taunting Guiderius beforehand. Cut. We need to see Arviragus discovering Imogen's unconscious body. Cut. We need to see Act 5 Scene 2, which establishes that Iachimo is at the battle on the Italian side, and that Leonatus is (at that particular instant) on the British side fighting against him. Cut.
What makes these cuts even more idiotic is that all of these scenes are *referred to* in Act 5 Scene 5. In detail. At length. Guiderius mentions the taunting. Arviragus mentions finding the body. Leonatus mentions fighting Iachimo. We get the flashbacks but miss out on the first-time-rounds.
But that's not all that's mentioned in Act 5 Scene 5. Oh no, not by a lot shot. I know I've complained about Shakespeare's curt endings. Well this isn't one of them. This is like watching AI: Artificial Intelligence. It never f*cking ends. You go away, have biscuit and a cup of tea, and it's still going strong. Act 5 is the second-longest act in all of Shakespeare (only Winter’s Tale III beats it) and, apart from a supernatural bit at the beginning and the switchback ride through Leonatus' loyalties, it's pretty much entirely consists of characters standing around explaining the plot of the previous four Acts to each other and exclaiming, 'Well I never did'.
It makes you appreciate the simplicity of the endings of the comedies, where it would end on a wedding, or the tragedies where it would end on a gouging, or the histories, where it would end on a crowning. But here instead we are led through a painstaking, interminable, wordy, stilted, undramatic, humourless series of expositions, as so and so reveals thingy A, which means that so and so can reveal thingy B and so and so can go "A and B? Well I never did!" Oh sod it, I need another cup of tea.
George Bernard Shaw, he of the sizeable arrangement of chin topiary and the peculiar concern that he might beget progeny that had their mother's brains, wasn't too keen on Act 5. In fact, he went so far as to write his own improved version, Cymbeline Refinished. Tch! FANWANK KLAXON!
He does have a point, but to be brutal the ending can be brought to life through the acting - the material is there, it just needs expanding - and it's no worse than the ending of Othello or King Lear. It's workmanlike, just horribly, thuddingly, pedantically anticlimactic. And let's face it George Bernard Shaw wasn't all that hot as a playwright anyway, because he forgot to put the showtunes in My Fair Lady.
Whilst we're on the BBC f*ckups... the sets are wrong. Parts of the play take place outside a cave in some mountains. Not in the BBC production they don't. They take place in what appears to be the lobby of a Harvester Restaurant. And, for me, this ruins the sense of the scene, because Harvester Restaurants do not, to me, shout out 'exiled to a barren elemental wilderness'. They shout out 'slightly overdone corn on the cob'.
And one last moan. There's a lovely funny scene at the beginning of Act 5 - this seems to be where the wheels have well and truly fallen off the cart in the BBC production - just after the spectral brouhaha, there's a lovely funny scene where Leonatus is about to executed, and where his Gaoler tries to cheer him up by saying: 'The comfort is, you shall be call to no more payments, fear no more tavern bills, [you] depart reeling with too much drink, sorry that you have paid too much...' and so it goes on. It's wonderfully darkly comic - it's like 'Cheer up Bwian, might never happen' in The Life Of Brian - and it works in precisely the same way as the bit with the snake wrangler in Antony & Cleopatra. It creates tension, emotion and all that stuff.
And of course they cut it. Twats! They are twats! Gormless, gormless twats!
Moving on to positives. One thing I liked about the play comes at the beginning, where two Gentlemen are setting the scene between them, telling each other things they already know in the best tradition of exposition. Gentleman 1 explains, re the King's sons being kidnapped:
GENTLEMAN 1: 'He had two sons - if this be worth your hearing, mark it - the eldest of them at three years old, I' the swathing clothes the other, from their nursery were stol'n. And to this hour no guess in knowledge which way they went.'
GENTLEMAN 2: 'How long is this ago?'
GENTLEMAN 1: 'Some twenty years.'
GENTLEMAN 2: 'That a King's children should be so convey'd, so slackly guarded, and the search so slow, that could not trace them!'
GENTLEMAN 1: 'Howsoe'er, 'tis strange. Or that the negligence may well be laugh'd at. Yet is it true, sir.'
This is wonderful. Because this is the first instance, I think, of the device of a writer using the trick of 'Look, you know it's stupid, I know it's stupid, let's just make a joke about it and move on.' Rather than attempting to disguise an implausible premise, or hoping that Joe Public never clocks a thing, Shakespeare hangs a lamp on it and basically says Deal With It, Trust Me, I Know What I’m Doing.
And you have to love the writer for doing this. Because it's smart, it's funny, and it's showing respect for the audience. It's a way of winning people over.
The other plot problems aren't dealt with quite so neatly, however. It’s suggested, in some of the places where I’ve Read Up Beforehand, that the problem with Cymbeline is that it has too much plot and concentrates on plot to the detriment of character. Those places where I had Read Up Beforehand are wrong. It's not there is too much plot - this is Shakespeare's third longest play, for f*ck's sake - it's that what plot there is hasn't really been thought through. Other plays have more action - the Henry VIs spring to mind but there are others - but they make some sense. Cymbeline... doesn't.
Problem 1 is the fact that nobody seems to recognise anyone else. It's one thing to have long-lost relatives who have never seen each other as strangers. But in Cymbeline people walk out of the room for five minutes, come back in and people go 'Who the f*ck are you supposed to be?'. And they don't even have to wear a differently-coloured hat or a moustache or anything. Everyone has the memory capacity of an absent-minded goldfish.
I realise the 'disguise' device has been done to death through Shakespeare, but never so often, and so ineptly, and so mundanely, as it is done here. Everyone is pretending to be somebody else and whilst mistaken identities can be forgiven, or accepted, in a comedy, they don't sit easily in a drama. If Pisanio can recognise Imogen even if she is dressed as a boy, then it defies even the most suspended belief that her father and her husband can't.
Problem 2 relates to Problem 1. There are not enough ideas in this play, so certain ideas are repeated. They're not 'motifs', it is just recycling. I'm talking with particular reference to people having identifying moles about their person. To use that device once in a play is lazy. To use it twice is f*cking ridiculous.
Problem 3 is Wales.
Part of the play is set in Wales. Around a place called Milford Haven. A particularly mountainous region of Wales, according to Cymbeline. A part of Wales which can be reached in two days, by horse, from Colchester. A place where, if you were in Colchester and decided you had to leave the country by sea, would be your first port of call, even though Colchester has a f*cking river running through it going to the English channel.
I'm sure Shakespeare was only using Wales in an attempt at Historical Accuracy. Not his fault. And it does mean that Cymbeline is the only Shakespeare play to have scenes set in Wales, unless Henry IV did. I remember there being a taffy in it.
But the main problem is not geographical inaccuracy, it's that according to this play, Wales is such a small place it is impossible not to bump into everyone else who is in Wales whilst you are there. It's the same problem as the heath in King Lear all over again. It's a rolling expanse, yet for the purposes of the play it's about four yards long and two yards wide. And it has one mountain in it, and one cave in the mountain.
I find this hard to believe because I learned at an early age that Wales is, in fact, an area the size of Wales. Because 'an area the size of Wales' is one of those defining measurements you learn about at an early age, isn't it? It's 'an area the size of Wales' that is being chopped down in the rainforests every twelve months. I used to wonder if it might also be an area the shape of Wales as well, that they had this huge Wales-shaped cookie cutter and they were systematically removing Wales-shaped chunks of rainforest. And because Wales doesn't tessellate, that would mean they were leaving lots of straggly bits shaped like Porthcawl.
Thing is, what would you do with a Wales-shaped chunk of rainforest anyway? You'd stick it on top of Wales, of course. You could stack it up in layers, one rainforest on top of another. Probably a more efficient use of space in the long run. And I don't think the Welsh people would mind that much. They’d grow used to it. It might be a bit dark under several layers of rainforest but they’d like that, it would be like living down a mine.
I wonder why the people chopping down the rainforest decided on an area the size of Wales. They could have gone for an area the size of Belgium or the size of Holland. I suspect it's because they wanted environmental destruction to be indelibly associated with the Welsh.
I have digressed. My one other thought with Cymbeline is just that, uniquely, has nothing unique about it. There's nothing in it which isn't done in another Shakespeare play - usually better, but not that much better - whereas all the other Shakespeares contain at least a couple of unique features. Cymbeline feels oddly generic and sausage-machine-like - almost like the sort of play you would come up with if you were trying to write a pastiche of Shakespeare.
Incidentally I was sort-of being facetious about the Colchester thing. Cymbeline doesn't actually specify where King Cymbeline lives, but it's a matter of historical record that in as much as King Cymbeline ever existed, which is arguable, he existed at a time when Colchester was the declared capital of Britain. This is possibly because when Julius Caesar invaded in 55BC he got as far as Colchester and then decided it wasn't worth invading after all.
Never mind all that. Words and phrases coined? 'The game is up'. 'Not slept one wink'. Dalmatians. Freezing. Importantly. 'As chaste as unsunn'd snow' which I think may be the origins of 'as pure as the driven snow'. Famous quotes? Not really any to speak of.
Cast? Helen Mirren's Imogen, and Robert Lindsay is Iachimo. Marius Goring is apparently Sicilus Leonatus. I say 'apparently' because I don't remember there being such a character in the play, and I haven't seen Marius Goring in anything apart from part two of The Evil of the Daleks.
Much more fun is Michael Gough, who you'd think would be miscast as Belarius (a rather rough and rugged character) but who makes a very decent fist of it. Apparently he's still not dead yet, isn't that amazing? And there's the wonderful Graham Crowden as the Roman ambassador Caius Lucius, demanding tribute - not sure what the tribute is but it could well consist of seven rather bored-looking blonde teenagers wearing baggy yellow pyjamas.
Best of all, though, is that the play features Patricia Hayes as a soothsayer and, very very briefly, Patsy Smart as a lady-in-waiting. Does she serve up onions? I'm not saying.
The year is 26BC. Following the death of his wife, King Cymbeline has re-married, his new Queen being very much popped out from the traditional fairytale Wicked Stepmother mould. She is the Wicked Stepmother to Imogen, King Cymbeline's daughter. She is also the Wicked Mother to Cloten, an upper-class berk.
The Queen (she doesn't have a name) wants Cloten to be Imogen's husband, but instead she has gone and married Posthumus Leonatus. Even though he's called Posthumus he is, in fact, very much alive and well. Born an orphan, he was brought up in the royal household, and Imogen has fallen in love with him despite the fact that he’s a pauper. Leonatus is also very much in love with her. It's like that old tale, the Princess and the pauper, and the porpoise.
However, news of the marriage does not sit happily in the King's ears, and - in fear of his life - Leonatus buggers off to live in Italy till the dust settles. He leaves behind his servant, Pisanio to keep an eye on Imogen.
In Italy - Rome to be precise - Leonatus meets Iachimo, a lecherous, oily fella. Iachimo boasts that he can charm any woman into sleeping with him; 'I make-a the chat with-a tha beautiful laydees!'. Leonatus bets him he can't. Iachimo bets him he can. A deal is struck. If Iachimo can prove he's f*cked Imogen, then he'll get Leonatus' ring (which was a gift from Imogen). If he can’t, he forfeits ten thousand duck hats. Duck hats being the currency back then, don’t ask.
The evil Queen isn't keen on Pisanio being about the place - he will remind Imogen of her absent husband and cause her to sigh winsomely - and decides to poison the f*cker. She buys some poison from Cornelius, the local quack, and gives it to Pisanio saying it is medicine to be taken for his nerves. However, the quack suspects foul play is afoot (a webbed foot), and in fact the 'poison' is merely a sleeping draught. This will all become relevant later on, I hope.
Iachimo arrives at the British court and begins to make-a the chit-chat with-a the beautiful Imogen. He tells her that Leonatus is shagging his way around Rome, but Imogen doesn't believe him. Realising he doesn't stand a chance, Iachimo claims he was merely 'testing' her on Leonatus' behalf and, as he leaves, asks her to look after his trunk of valuable stuff.
The trunk of valuable stuff is stowed in Imogen's room and, whilst she is sleeping, who should climb out of the trunk but, you've guessed it, Iachimo! He pootles about her boudoir, making notes on the fixtures and fittings, and steals the bracelet from Imogen's wrist - a bracelet that Leonatus gave her. And then, because he's a Bloody Bloke, he steals a quick look down the front of Imogen's shorty-nightie. Wahey! And she happens to have an identifying mole. Chuckling Ainleyly, Iachimo heads back for Italy, with only his notebook, bracelet and boob- blemish recollection for company...
Clotus has sort-of fallen in love - or lust - with Imogen, and tries to woo her by getting some people to pluck the ukulele outside her bedroom. Imogen awakes and is unimpressed - she tells Clotus that even Leonatus' most soiled pair of pants is more attractive to her than him - and then she notices she’s missing a bracelet. F*ck!
Oh, and around this point Graham Crowden turns up demanding tribute in the name of the first Roman Empire. The Queen tells him to f*ck off. She's like that and that's the way she is.
Back in Italy, Iachimo informs Leonatus that he has well and truly shagged Imogen, and she looooved getting a piece of his salami. Leonatus isn't convinced. Iachimo then describes the bedroom in detail. 'Ah', says Leonatus, 'But you could have got that from the interior decorator!' Iachimo then presents him with the bracelet. 'Ah', says Leonatus, 'But you could have got that from a servant'. Iachimo then takes a deep breath, and draws a picture of her mole on the back of a beer mat. He presents it to Leonatus, 'Look, here's a mole on her tit - and I've sucked it!'
Urgh. Sucking somebody's mole. But this convinces Leonatus that his bird has been getting some illicit Italian trouser-salami. He hands over his ring to Iachimo, and, in a fit of jealous rage, vows that Imogen Must Die. He formulates a plan. He will send two notes. One to Imogen, telling her to meet him at the famous Welsh wilderness/mountain range/seaside resort of Milford Haven. And a second to Pisanio, telling him to go with Imogen to Milford Haven - and to kill her there! Brutally!
Act 3 is where it all kicks off, and is pretty good stuff. Graham Crowden warns the King that if he doesn't hand over the tribute, Rome will really have no choice but to invade Britain and if you've ever seen The Romans in Britain you know how uncomfortable that will be. So be it, says the Queen before Cymbeline can get a f*cking word in edgeways.
The letters from Leonatus arrives, Imogen packs her bags for Milford Haven, and Pisanio reluctantly agrees to go with her. But when they arrive, Pisanio bottles it and tells Imogen that he can't bring himself to follow his master's orders. What orders? asks Imogen, and Pisanio shows her the letter from Leonatus ordering him to kill her. Understandably Imogen is rather galled at this turn of events. She tells Pisanio to kill her, but he still can't do it. Instead he suggests an alternative plan. She should dress as a boy and travel to Rome, where she can find Leonatus and check up on him. As luck would have it he brought along a set of boy's clothes for her...
Imogen agrees to this plan, but mentions that she is liable to get sea-sick on the voyage. 'No problem' says Pisanio, 'I have some medicine with me'. And he gives her the medicine from earlier - remember, the sleeping draught? Pisanio then f*cks off, leaving Imogen to fend for herself. She quickly gets lost and runs out of food...
Back at court, Cloten has noticed that Imogen has buggered off. Taking her words about her loving Leonatus' soiled pants to heart, Cloten forces the recently-returned Pisanio (at sword-point) to provide him with some of Leonatus' clothes (in his hurry to bugger off to Rome, he conveniently left some behind) and, dressed as Leonatus, he goes to search for Imogen at Milford Haven. He has had enough of playing Mr Nice Guy - he will teach the ungrateful hussy a lesson, and he is going to pork her into submission whether she likes it or not. Charming.
Up on the mountain in Milford Haven there lies a cave. Or, in the BBC version, a Harvester Restaurant. In this cave, or restaurant, lives a beardy old boyo called Morgan, and his two sons, Polydore and Cadwal. They live a rustic existence, drinking water out of rivers, throwing rocks at sheep etc. A traditional Welsh family. But - and here's where it gets bonkers - Morgan is actually an old Lord called Belarius, who was exiled from King Cymbeline's court twenty years previously. And when he was exiled, Belarius abducted King Cymbeline's two infant sons from the nursery, Guiderius and Arviragus - and has raised them as his own. For revenge purposes..
Imogen - who is now dressed as a boy, remember, and is lost and hungry - bumps into Belarius and 'sons' and hits it off with them bigtime. Guiderius has funny feelings about this unusually attractive 'boy' called 'Fidele' and mentions that if 'he' was a girl he would want to fidele with her. Weird. Arviragus, on the other hand, says that it is fortunate that 'he' is not a girl, and he instead will love 'Fidele' as a brother and no fideling is allowed.
Note: All these jokes reappear in Act 5 where they are explained, at length.
Act IV, it gets complicated. Keep up.
Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus leave Imogen in their cave as they have a hard day's work ahead of them throwing rocks at sheep. After her ordeal, Imogen isn't feeling well, and takes Pisanio's 'medicine'. It renders her unconscious. This is not the last time Imogen will be rendered unconscious.
Whilst they are out 'hunting', Belarius, Guiderius and Arviragus bump into Cloten. Various important things happen here which aren't in the BBC version, and then Guiderius kills Cloten, chopping his head clean off. He throws the head in a river, leaving the headless corpse where it is (a headless corpse wearing Leonatus' clothes, remember).
The brothers then discover Imogen's body in the cave. For reasons best known to themselves, they leave Imogen's 'corpse' next to the headless body of Clotus, and head off into the woods to find some shovels with which to dig graves. So far, so contrived.
Because then Imogen wakes up from her coma, to discover what she thinks is the headless corpse of her husband Leonatus beside her. Overcome with shock Imogen passes out. She was awake for all of five minutes, tops.
And then who should happen onto the scene but the Roman army, led by Graham Crowden. Believing Imogen to be a boy who is grieving for his beheaded 'master', they take her into their care, and the Army gets ready to attack the massed British forces...
...but, thanks to three beardy blokes up the mountain throwing rocks, the British defeat the entire Roman army. Or something like that. It's not made clear, even without the BBC cuts.
Oh, and Leonatus and Iachimo are both soldiers in the Roman army at this point. Act V begins with some very muddled stuff about Leonatus - he arrives in Milford Haven as a Roman soldier, but decides to fight on the British side, and he disarms Iachimo, but then he sees that the British are winning, so he decides to fight on the Roman side again... and then he gets captured by the British, who have defeated the Eyeties. Crowden flees for his life, pausing only to yell 'My dreeeeeeeams of conquest!'
If you thought things couldn't get any more silly, you thought wrong. Leonatus is imprisoned by the British and awaits execution. Whilst awaiting execution, he has a vision in his sleep, where his dead ancestors, and the God Jupiter, all sing to him and dance around him waving candles and hankies and suchlike. And then they leave a book of proverbs on his lap - which, like in The Snowman, is still there when he wakes, so it proves it wasn't a dream!
Leonatus isn't executed, though. Instead he is taken to the British camp (or back to King Cymbeline's castle in the BBC adaptation) and the cast gather for the explanations to begin. Take a deep breath, ready a brew, this is going to take a while.
First up, we learn that the Queen is dead. I know, you thought that would be a light that never went out, but some girls are bigger than others. It's over, she's passed through the cemetery gates and the memorial service was conducted by a vicar in a tutu.
Yes, the Queen is dead. But no-one particularly minds, because it transpires that on her deathbed the Queen confessed to a plan to have the King murdered and replaced by Cloten. She's so meeeeeean!
Next up, King Cymbeline thanks 'Morgan' 'Polydore' and 'Cadwal' for their help in defeating the Roman army by throwing rocks and sheep at them from the top of a mountain. 'Morgan' being Belarius, remember, the exiled Lord and 'Polydore' and 'Cadwal' being Guiderius and Arviragus the King's long-lost sons.
Next the Roman prisoners are brought in - and their number includes Imogen (still dressed as a boy, 'Fidele'), Iachimo and Leonatus.
Imogen spots her ring on Iachimo's finger - a ring she gave to Leonatus - and challenges him as to how he got it. Because the play has now been going for about three and a half hours, Iachimo decides to confess all. He got the ring from Leonatus, he explains, by convincing Leonatus that Imogen had been unfaithful to him, when she hadn't.
This leads Leonatus to confess all about his plan to have Imogen killed - remember, his plan to have her go to Milford Haven where his servant Pisanio would kill her. The King, hearing that Leonatus has had his daughter murdered, is none too pleased.
- but then Imogen steps forward and tries to tell Leonatus to shut the f*ck up, but, thinking she is an impertinent boy, Leonatus punches her in the face, knocking her unconscious. Unconsciousness being Imogen’s default state.
Fortunately for Leonatus, Pisanio steps forward and explains he didn't actually kill Imogen as instructed, because she is still alive - and is there lying unconscious on the floor, dressed as a boy!
Realising their mistake, Cymbeline and Leonatus rush to Imogen's side to wake her up. Imogen is aroused and accuses Pisanio of trying to kill her with his so-called 'medicine' which turned out to be a sleeping draught.
Cornelius, the local quack in the duck hat, steps forward and explains that it wasn't Pisanio's fault that the 'medicine' was a sleeping draught, that had been his idea, as he had been trying to thwart the Queen's poisoning plan.
Imogen then sees that Leonatus, who she thought is dead, is alive, and hugs him (forgiving him the whole trying-to-have-her-killed business). Leonatus hugs her back - well actually he hugs her front - delighted that she is not only back from the dead but is also dressed as a boy, which stirs strange but interesting feelings.
But then Imogen says - but I saw your dead body! A headless corpse, dressed in your soiled underpants!
This is Pisario's cue to explain that Cloten forced him to provide him with Leonatus' clothes, which Cloten then wore on his ill-fated trip to Milford Haven. It seems that all trips to Milford Haven are ill-fated.
Cue Guiderius to step forward and explain how he bumped into Cloten at Milford Haven and how there had been a ruck, outcome of which was that Cloten ended up suffering from a mild cleaving in the neck region. Guiderius explains that the action was warranted because Cloten had been perfectly beastly to him in the woods.
We're now around the four hour mark and there's still no sign of it ending. Now its Belarius' turn to reveal that he is not, in fact, an old Welshman called Morgan but the exiled Lord Belarius. He explains about kidnapping the King's sons, and says 'King, your sons, who you thought were dead... are here! And here!'
Such is the King's joy that he forgive Belarius for kidnapping them in the first place. He is initially sceptical about their identities but, as I mentioned earlier, Guiderius has a mole on his neck, which proves to be a clincher.
Cymbeline apologises to his daughter, Imogen, because now she won't be Queen. She says she doesn't mind, because she now has two lovely brothers and a lovely husband.
Surely it must be ending soon, you would think. But no such f*cking luck!
No, because now the book of proverbs that the God Jupiter left on Leonatus' lap comes into play. The book falls open on a proverb all to do with trees and lions and branches and stuff. A soothsayer is brought in to explain what it all might mean. The soothsayer declares that the proverb means that Britain will now be at peace, ruled jointly by King Cymbeline's two sons, and this will lead, eventually, to an age of prosperity with lots of dead Frenchmen.
And that's it. Oh, and Cymbeline decides to make peace with the Romans as well, by agreeing to pay their tribute after all. But no-one care, because by this point, after an hour of relentless head-slapping tedium, the theatre is entirely empty.
Next up: Oo-er, sounds a bit rude - it's Coriolanus!