Review: The Stratford Festival's CYMBELINE Offers Fantasy and Excitement

Director Esther Jun and Company transport us to a Fantasy World of Intrigue and Humour

By: May. 30, 2024
Review: The Stratford Festival's CYMBELINE Offers Fantasy and Excitement
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An exciting production of William Shakespeare’s CYMBELINE opened last night at the Tom Patterson Theatre. This rarely played Tragicomedy Romance offers an intriguing and fantastical story and Director Esther Jun and company take full advantage of all the twists, turns and laughs within the text.

In this tale that manages to utilize just about every plot device and trope that Shakespeare is known for, CYMBELINE tells a series of interconnected stories all linking back to [in this production] Queen Cymbeline - played by always excellent Festival favourite Lucy Peacock. The Queen's daughter, Innogen (Allison Edwards-Crewe) disappoints her mother by marrying her best friend, Posthumus Leonatus (Jordin Hall) rather than someone of equal social class, like her stepbrother Cloten (Christopher Allen), whom the Duke (Rick Roberts) has been pushing for her to marry. Posthumus is banished and while in Italy, he tells the villainous Iachimo (Tyrone Savage) of his beloved Innogen. Iachimo sees a challenge and wagers that he can successfull seduce and bed Innogen. Iachimo is not able to achieve this, however through lies and trickery, convinces Posthumus that he has. This leads a rageful Posthumus to order his servant to kill Innogen - leading to Innogen disguising herself as a man and fleeing to Italy to try to sort everything out. Several additional players (as well as an entire war) enter the scene and past ghosts both figuratively and literally reaquaint themselves with our heroes and villains before the play is done.

CYMBELINE is not  as frequently performed as some of Shakespeare's other plays. As such, there is less familiarity with it among the average theatre-goer. This allows for something interesting to happen at the Tom Patterson Theatre - Many audiences will be seeing a production of this play for the first time. There is an element of surprise that is not as common at most Shakespearean productions where typically everyone in the room knows exactly what’s going to happen. On countless occasions leading up to last night’s opening of CYMBELINE, I would overhear a remark such as “I don’t know much about this one.” This coupled with the grins on faces as audience members filtered out of the theatre after experiencing the whirlwind of plot that this play offers, must be incredibly satisfying for all involved.

The play opens with Jupiter (Marcus Nance) and Philarmonous, the Soothsayer (Cynthia Jimenez-Hicks) providing exposition of what has happened in our story thus far - including an important detail that two of Cymbeline's children were stolen from her when they were young. This scene is often simply done as one or two characters informing the audience of what has occurred, but Director Esther Jun uses it as an opportunity to set the tone and fully immerse the audience into this world. Most players are on stage as mist rises from the ground and lights flow up the roots of a tree. As Jupiter and the Soothsayer mention a character, they will touch them or motion towards them, the character then taking on an action such as leaving, or dying, etc. They are quite literally 'setting the scene' as the rectangular Tom Patterson thrust stage transforms into a tabletop of sorts on which our performers are like human figurines in a life-size Dungeons and Dragons campaign.

Elements of fantasy and mysticism are certainly not uncommon in Shakespeare, but aesthetically, Jun, Set and Lighting Designer Echo Zhou and Costume Designer Michelle Bohn lean into this and transport us into a fantasy world resembling that which one might find in a Tolkien novel. Although the creatives certainly bring a unique vision, it is fitting that Jun mentions the Lord of the Rings in her Director’s Notes, because certain hairstyles and costumes indeed seem to be heavily influenced by those books and films.

Despite what the title might lead you to believe, this is very much Innogen’s play. Allison Edwards-Crewe is excellent as one of Shakespeare's most beloved heroines. She portrays Innogen's strength through her intelligence, faithfulness and wit. Your heart breaks for her as she learns that Posthumus wants her dead and she desperately tries to understand why. Her shared scenes with the also excellent Irene Poole as Pisanio were among some of my favourites.

Christopher Allen’s Cloten is a dimwitted, cowardly, superficial piece of work and Allen gives a fantastic performance. Poor Cloten is not particularly bright and doesn’t really have any other redeeming characteristics either. He serves as a kind of villain, however, he lacks the self awareness necessary to be fully realized in this role. Allen deservedly gets some of the biggest laughs of the night. 

Tyrone Savage plays the other kind of villain – the one who knows what he is doing and is doing it to cause trouble and strife. Savage masterfully transitions from a thorn-in-your-side, mischievous kind of villain to a dark and distrubing bad guy when he slinks around in Innogen’s chambers while she is sleeping. The scenes between Savage and Jordin Hall's Postumus are captivating. Hall also gives a grand performance as a man blinded by humilation and rage at what he believes is Innogen's betrayal.

Jun jokes in her Director's notes that the plot of this play rivals the most exciting television dramas and she's right. Adding to this excitement is the humour as the play itself seems to recognize the ridiculousness of its twists and turns. There is death in this play and yet the humour remains. There is one scene involving the mistaken identity of a corpse that is played as serious but is simultaneously comical simply because of the absurdity of the situation. When this tale is later recounted, it is done so in an equally funny matter-of-fact manner. This humour may not be for everyone, but Wednesday's audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy it.

In conclusion, if you are looking for an exciting story with unexpected twists and turns, brilliant performances, and a few laughs along the way - and you also happen to be a Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones fan - look no further than the Stratford Festival's current production of CYMBELINE.

CYMBELINE continues in Repertory at the Tom Patterson Theatre until September 28th.

PHOTO CREDIT: David Hou



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