Cymbeline is a play that I’d never read, never seen, and generally knew nothing about until last Tuesday night. It’s one of Shakespeare’s kind of obscure C-list plays that’s seldom performed, and I had no idea what I was in for when the lights dimmed and the show started. The production was, strictly speaking, an adaptation of Cymbeline. While the original play was there, the director had added in a piano player/narrator type character who contextualized and commented on what was happening in the play (honestly, I did not find this to be a particularly interesting addition). I enjoyed the production quite a bit, but afterwards I completely understood why Cymbeline is so seldom performed: it’s an utter mess.
Make no mistake, it’s a really entertaining mess, but I’m pretty sure that Shakespeare just kind whipped up to amuse himself as it contains themes, riffs, and bits from just about every other Shakespeare play. A dottering old king like a la King Lear? Check. A conniving queen like the one from Macbeth? Check. A dude who is duped into thinking that his wife is cheating on him by a lying, manipulative douchebag and who subsequently wants to kill said wife a la Othello? Check. That drug from Romeo and Juliet that makes you seem dead even though you’re not? Check. Female-to-male cross dressing straight out of Twelfth Night? Check. Mistaken identity and misunderstandings in the spirit of Much Ado About Nothing? Check.
The various plots of Cymbeline ping-pong about ancient Britain, down to Rome, and back again, and Celts, Centurions, and hilarious Welsh hillbillies all show up, because why the hell not. Then, after a big battle that seems to happen just so the play can have a climax, all of the various plots are resolved in one big end scene that wraps it all up with a crowd-pleasing happy ending. Cymbeline is disjointed, messy, weird, thematically unstable, and I kind of loved it. It is like Shakespeare made a Girl Talk track out of all of his previous works, sat back, and then let the crowd eat it up.
It’s certainly not as affecting as King Lear, as magical as the Tempest, or as funny as Much Ado. Cymbeline is, though, of a glorious example of everything getting put in the Bard-blender and then being served up as a frothy drama-smoothie. It is,and I use this term wholly unironically, totally epic.