The 2014 Bard on the Beach run included the not done often play Cymbeline. It’s a dramatic and exciting play that bounces between comedy, drama and sometimes shocking plot turns, and is one of the Bard Brawl’s favourites.
Director Anita Rochon discussed the production with the Bard Brawl.
Bard Brawl: Why did you pitch Cymbeline (to Bard on the Beach)?
Anita Rochon: It was a couple of things. It was a play that was really interesting to me and also interesting why it isn’t done very often… The last time it was done at Bard on the Beach was 2002, so I also saw that it wasn’t done in a long time, and with the particular casting breakdown I was working with, which was one women and five men (I asked for a sixth) because we were paired with Equivocation, I had to work within a particular cast breakdown, and I saw that Cymbeline had this women who was at the axis point of all these different narratives, so she really was the centre. That was a play that I could imagine staging with a smaller cast and having a women at the centre of it all.
BB: What was the direction you were trying to lead this play?
AR: One of the motifs and themes that was very strong for me in reading it was the idea that one can change. The idea that you may get forgiveness, that you may get a second chance. So the idea of changing, and changing identity, and not just going in disguise – as happens in a lot of Shakespeare’s plays – but even the idea that you sometimes have to change your idea of who you are in order to keep living in a way that’s satisfying, but also to receive forgiveness is something that I really emphasized, and took it quite literally to this idea of people changing identities right before our eyes.
BB: The one thing that I was surprised with was in the first half of the play, it was a lot lighter. Cloten and his mother, there were a lot of laughs where you or they pushed the humour. Was the difficult to rectify seeing as how dark it (the play) gets at the end?
AR: I think what every director does is just try and do what the playwrite is telling us to do, and so that’s what I was trying to do. I didn’t feel like I was attempting to push any humour. Shakespeare has written those weird scenes between Cloten and the lords where you get such a clear dynamic of how the whole kingdom thinks of Cloten, and the queen has those fantastic asides to the audience. She’s really written like an evil stepmother in fairytale tradition.
So many speak about how it’s such a crazy play, and has so many things: comedy, romance, drama, tragedy. The only way that I could understand dealing with that was just playing everything for what it’s worth. Just playing everything for how it’s written. We can’t squeeze the whole thing into being a comedy; why would we try?
I think there is a precedent for that now, we’re used to that now with shows like Game of Thrones or probably better example would be Breaking Bad where sometimes you have these scenes that are almost clown-like and then you have high drama, and then you have a stylized scene. A show like Breaking Bad has all of those things, and so I just tried to commit to each scene from what I understood from each scene and put them all together with a container of this ensemble telling us this story.
We see the ensemble coming out presenting themselves, presenting the narrative they’re about to tell us, and then, at the end, with that little button where Rachel Cairns (Imogen) takes centre stage again and finishes up the play, and then throughout with the ensemble sometimes sitting upstage, I just had to believe that the ensemble telling us the story that contained comedy, contained tragedy, contained drama, that if I played each scene for what it’s worth and asked the actors to do the same that we’d be okay.
BB: Everything in the production is almost monotone, greys and beiges, as far as the design goes, but the tempo is very fast. They move quickly. How did you get all of these elements to work together.
AR: I think I took it similar to how I was saying I took the scenes scene-by-scene. I probably took all the elements element-by-element. The costumes for instance, we based them off of fencing uniforms, for three reasons. I wanted the ensemble to feel like a team. I wanted them to feel athletic. I wanted the production from the very beginning to feel athletic and muscular and fast-paced, and sometimes masculine, but with a feminine presence in there. Certainly the Rome scenes I wanted them to feel masculine, so that kind of athletic, nimble feeling was a priority for me. I began to think, we need a base costume because they’re switching between all of these different characters, so what can I have as a base costume? The worst idea would be a black turtleneck and black pants.
I was scouring all these books, and I came across this amazing image of a fencing uniform from 100 years ago, and I thought, ‘this is really interesting’ because we immediately associate it with a particular time. It feels a little bit old timey without it feeling specifically old timey. It references a period without it saying, ‘this takes place in 1409.’ Yet it encapsulates a little bit of that team feeling, that play fighting feeling, that we’re going to play at something in front of you. Of course, fencing is in preparation for a real fight. Like this play is a representation of a reality or a true story.
In terms of colour, we just wanted a fairly neutral palate, so that those other costumes could live off of there, but also be complimented by it, and of course, fencing uniforms are in those light grey tones.
In terms of the set, I was really interested in highlighting the theatre in its raw form, so the stage really nice and bare, and we used similar material…
I kind of just went element-by-element, and then try to keep the look of it all similar. Keep it all clean and always ask myself, what is the essential here. Let’s try and boil everything down to its essential and not have a lot of extra props and extra props and extra sets.
Anita Rochon artistic co-directs The Chop in Vancouver with Emelia Symington Fedy, which has produced numerous new works including KISMET one to one hundred and How to Disappear Completely which continues to tour internationally. She frequently collaborates with some of the city’s most celebrated companies including Theatre Replacement, Théâtre la Seizième, Vancouver Opera and Electric Company Theatre. She is a graduate of Studio 58 (Acting) and the National Theatre School of Canada (Directing). Anita is the recipient of a Siminovitch Protégé Prize and a Mayor’s Arts Award.