Following on the heels of “Julius Caesar,” the second Shakespearean play to be produced this season by the Shakespeare by the Sea Festival is “Cymbeline, King of Britain,” one of the least familiar and least frequently performed plays in The Bard’s canon.
I imagine that most audience members will never have seen it or read it. I suspect this may be the first Newfoundland production of the play. As well as being relatively unfamiliar, “Cymbeline,” or, Much Ado About Everything, as Canadian scholar Northrop Frye whimsically subtitled it, is the most complex and convoluted of Shakespeare’s plays, as a synopsis will suggest.
Set in ancient Britain in the pre-Christian era, King Cymbeline’s daughter, Innogen (or Imogen if you prefer the first-folio spelling), is married to a commoner, Posthumus, while she is in turn amorously pursued by Cloten, the vicious son of her wicked stepmother.
Under his spouse’s influence, the King banishes Posthumus into Italian exile, where, boasting of his virtuous truelove, Posthumus imprudently wagers that the mischief-making Giacomo will be unable to seduce Innogen.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, the wicked Queen tries to poison her stepdaughter. (Does this sound more like Snow White or Cinderella than Shakespeare?)
On the political front, at the urging of his nameless consort, Cymbeline breaks with Rome and refuses to pay tribute — actions that trigger military retribution.
In the meantime, believing Innogen to have been unfaithful to him, Posthumus returns from exile to lure her to a remote region of Wales, where he intends to murder her, not knowing that these mountainous parts are the home of banished Belarius, a rejected councillor of the king, now living in exile in a cave with his sons, Polydore and Cadwal, who are unaware that they are really Guiderius and Arviragus, sons of Cymbeline, whom Belarius stole as infants to bring up as his own.
And this is just for starters.
I will refrain from revealing further twists and turns of this shaggy-dog story, except to confide that only bad people die (but not all of them), that Posthumus and Innogen are finally reunited, and that peace is proclaimed with the union of Roman and British ensigns — which perhaps adumbrates the desired but unachieved union of the kingdoms of England and Scotland under the reign of Shakespeare’s patron, King James VI of Scotland and James I of England.
Opening night last Friday was an unusually placid and still evening on Signal Hill, enjoyed by an audience of 50 or so.
Costumes (of actors, not audience) comprise black tops and trousers, with sashes of green, red, blue, and, for trouble-making Giacomo (blond Jake Bradbury), yellow.
Simon Alteen is a fresh and youthful Posthumus, paired with a stately, self-possessed Innogen (Antoinette Fekete). The wicked queen, who comes to a bad end, is played by petite and bossy Sabrina Roberts, with her clot of a son, Cloten, enthusiastically played by Zack Moore.
Authoritarian, and frequently irate, King Cymbeline is stoutly portrayed by David Hallett, while his former councillor, Belarius, is Shakespearean veteran Michael Nolan, fathering his surrogate sons (Chris Eustace, Darnell Johnson).
Action is played close to the audience, with frequent confiding and direct address. Articulation is accurate and clear.
This is a workmanlike and honest production, with capable individual and ensemble performance, with varied entrances and exits, effective blocking, and with delicate, percussive sound cues executed live by a single technician and musician (Marie Jones).
Directed by Paul Rowe, “Cymbeline” runs on Fridays and Saturdays until Aug. 17, starting at 6 p.m. on the Tattoo Field of Signal Hill. Including a 15-minute intermission, the curtain call is taken around 8:15 p.m. Don’t forget to dress warmly and take a folding chair if you have one.