11 October 2006

Dear William Shakespeare (4)

I saw your Cymbeline last night, in Kneehigh's (incredibly) free adaptation, and have just spent some time looking through the reviews. They fall, broadly, into two camps. Most are enthusiastic, excited by the verve and theatrical imagination with which they've tackled this tricky play. Unsurprisingly, only the bluff Telegraph deigns to use the epithet most fitting: fun. But several are sniffy, Michael Billington in particular exhibiting upturned nose on the grounds that this production "taught me nothing new about Cymbeline". What a complete arse.

He also cavils at the "relentless jokiness". Has he read any of your comedies? Some of your fools are so effortful those cast as them often look in danger of burst veins or worse. And this from a man who earlier this summer described farce as "the essence of theatre". What a complete arse.

Likewise Sam Marlowe in the Times complains about a "daft pun" at a key moment: misreading Posthumous' letter to Pisanio, Hayley Carmichael's Imogen reads "she has played the trumpet in my bed". Marlowe declares we get this "instead of Imogen's agony". Well firstly and for starters, that's not a pun. A pun is where the intended meaning of a word is mistaken for another, unintented meaning, not where one word is mistaken for another word entirely. Secondly, it got the biggest laugh of the night. Thirdly, I don't believe the agony is ever in doubt, but if it is then Carmichael's collapse from outraged disbelief (hilarious) to stricken gropes toward understanding (heartrending) removes it. The audience moves from utter bellylaughing hysteria to chokingly complete silence in an instant. I don't remember the RSC ever moving me to either of those states, let alone with such alacrity and skill.

These people, like those numerous who left during Stratford intervals (no such pomposity in Leeds), obviously nurse obscure feelings that Kneehigh director/adaptor Emma Rice is somehow cheapening your play. This may partly be derived from the fact that she uses very little of your text and they weren't told. Nothing more disconcerting than having to make your mind up on the spot. Marks off for not telling us in advance what we were going to see. There's an ill-concealed and sometimes even gropingly expressed feeling that without your language, it is impossible to match your grandeur. Bollocks. Kneehigh do with images what you do with words and I'm sorry if it upsets you, but this is the first production of Cymbeline I've seen and I know it's the best I'll ever see, text intact or no.

Still, I have a sneaking suspicion you'd like this show. Yours wasn't a theatre of reverence. Your crowds were rowdy and you had to keep them on side. So you gave them what they wanted to see - from wordmuddling fools to severed heads - in order to show them what you wanted them to see - the truth of loss, the joy of re-union. And if Kneehigh play to the crowds, they at no point pander to them. Barely a moment of this magnificent show is ill-judged, but a fair few of the responses are.


Blogger CEO said...

Enjoyed your letter to William. Agree with your sentiments - although Billington would consider me beyond the possibility of any informed insight since not only am I a Kneehigh enthusiast but also my son Dominic was the lead singer of the musicians!

I thought that WS would indeed have revelled in the way Kneehigh responded to the play: the bawdiness; the participation; the accessibility; but also the emotion. And the excitement they engendered.

6:47 am  

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