Biker Cymbeline a Real Drag

Daniel J. Rowe

Want to watch an excellent play full of life, energy, violence, intrigue, decapitation and romance and make it boring? No? Neither did I.

That’s why Cymbeline, the biker/cop adaptation of the Shakespeare play of same name that could have been oh-so-cool, was so disappointing.

How did this happen?

The idea for the film had everything you want in a Shakespearean adaptation: good play, good idea, good actors and nice set pieces, and yet, it failed in almost every respect.

A brief synopsis.

Directed byMichael Almereyda and starring Ed Harris (Cymbeline), Ethan Hawke (Iachimo), Milla Jovovich (the Queen), Penn Badgley (Posthumus) and Dakota Johnson (Imogen), the film centres on Cymbeline’s motorcycle club’s fight to get out from under the colonial weight of Rome (the cops).

Without getting into specific plot points, let’s just say there are fights, prodigal sons, almost rapes, poisoning, faked deaths, hide-and-go-seek games, and a chopped off head.

How did this film fail?

First, the delivery of lines.

Anyone not entirely sure what the term “vocal fry” means will have a definitive answer after watching this film. The cast, almost without exception, mumble, grumble and sometimes whisper their way through lines I guess in an attempt to make sure everyone knows they’re a tough sort used to rumbling through life. You know, like motorbikes. Sort of.

Vocal Fry:

In speech, a low, scratchy sound that occupies the vocal range below modal voice (the most commonly used vocal register in speech and singing). Also known as vocal fry register, creaky voice, pulse register, laryngealization, and glottal fry. (See Examples and Observations, below.)

David Crystal notes that American actor Vincent Price “produced excellent creaky voice in his especially menacing moments” (A Dictionary of Language, 2001).

I kind of hoped there would be a bit more energy to the characters. It’s not like there is not energy in the lines!

The film’s stars never seem to have any passion while speaking, and there is a good chance a few snoozes could be had while getting through the film.

All of the actors seem good fits for the roles. I mean Dan Humphrey on Gossip Girl is practically Posthumus, and wouldn’t you know it, Penn Badgley plays him. Just cut and past, and swap some dialogue. I won’t lie, when Dan and Serena van der Woodson broke up I stopped watching. Their love was just so real and perfect. Dangit TV! Why do you ruin everything. Then again, they might have got back together in the end. Maybe I should finish watching the series.

Where was I? Oh right. Shakespeare.

Imogen as well is lacking, but maybe I was spoiled by Lily Rabe’s stellar performance in the park this year. Johnson, however, is very drab.

And then there’s Iachimo, a very creepy and crazy character. I was expecting a lot out of Hawke given the quality of his performance in Hamlet. He was dull. I was sad.

Anton Yelchin as Cloten is perhaps the biggest disappointment. Cloten is one of Shakespeare’s most underrated characters. He can be buffoonishly funny, terrifyingly dangerous, or menacing depending on how you play him, and Yelchin is none of these.

The Queen is played by this woman, and has to be called out as a miss. She is on screen very little and given so few lines that it’s unclear what she did, why it mattered, and how her plot was foiled.

John Leguizamo‘s in it too, and adds another ‘guy who was cool in other Shakespeare play, but dull in this one’ credits to the film.

Argh. I know all of these actors are better than this, and I DEFINITELY know the play is better than this.

Second, direction.

This, I don’t understand. Almereyda did a kickass version of Hamlet in 2000, and the hope was that he’d be able to bring the same energy and style to one of Shakespeare’s weirdest and most interesting plays. He had the actors for it, but the film just didn’t wind up picking up any steam. It lacked energy and style, which is baffling as the concept had both.

Even the scenes of violence, confrontation and passion play out very low key. By the end, there is little impact when prodigal sons return, heads are lopped off or doting and devoted husbands prove their infidelity.

You want to see this play, and you want to see it done right, and Almereyda fails. This makes me sad.

Other things.

The constant scene and locale changes don’t help those trying to piece together what is actually a very complicated plot. It’s hard to connect with any of the characters when they get very short scenes, mumble their lines, and have no emotion be it humourous or dramatic.

The bikers aren’t that badass, and the cops don’t have the intimidating power due to Rome. The film is a miss, and, for someone who anticipated its release so much, discouraging.

It was original released as Anarchy, Ride or Die, which is a pretty dumb title and doesn’t really make any sense when you think about it. The story is more about controlling and asserting a state’s existence within an empire.

Please make another version of this play. It deserves it.


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Cymbeline in Central Park, a perfect summer night

Daniel J. Rowe

Oh dang. Watching American Horror Story Freak Show the other night, I realized, after seeing the always charming, chilling and a little bit creepy, Lily Rabe, that I had neglected to post the review I wrote in the summer of Cymbeline in which she starred. Twenty-eight lashes and three monologues of private lamentation later, I thought, why not just post it, and remember warm nights in the summer and brilliant productions of the bard. 

Here it is.


Photo before the performance. I obeyed the rules and put my phone away during.
Photo before the performance. I obeyed the rules and put my phone away during.

I have always, always, always wanted to see a play in Central Park, NYC. It’s one of those things all bard brawlers must do at some time, and, thanks to a lovely person from New Zealand, I got a couple of tickets. Oh, and I took a friend who had never been to a Shakespeare play before! So many lovely things right there.

(My friend Rene won the free tickets and gave them to me. Such a darling)

Boom. Bring on Cymbeline, an incredible play that I also saw last year at Bard on the Beach in Vancouver.

It was, simply put, great.

It is a great play to begin with full of craziness, funny stuff, pastoral, politics, history and a guy getting his head cut off. Always a nice touch.

The Public Theater production at the Delacorte Theater in Central Park centres on starred Lily Rabe of (as noted) as Imogen, and Hamish Linklater getting the double role of Posthumous and the scene-stealing Cloten.

First off, the opening of the play was great. Director Daniel Sullivan has those “turn off your phones” guys both welcome people, and thank sponsors (people actually clapped for the Bank of America. Weird). Then, the cast came out on stage and real audience members asked questions to get the crowd into the play, and, BANG, play starts. So smart. The effect was perfect. Everyone was laughing and ready to get set for what is a very strange and great play.

Rabe and Linklater were great.

Rabe has this incredible ability to be beautiful, and tragic, and funny, and weird all at once. A think I loved about her performance in Cymbeline was the way she moved. She didn’t do that predictable puffed out chest, “Victorian” stance that I seem to see so often in Shakespeare productions. She moved more hunched over and slinky, so, while she definitely commanded attention on stage, she also gave the character a bit of needed vulnerability.

Linklater was side-splitting hilarious as Cloten, as well as mopey, love-torn, romantic as Posthumous. A particularly incredible scene featuring both leads was the “Hark, hark the lark” song, Cloten serenades the girl who is “supposed” to love him! Why don’t you love Cloten?! It’s perfect.

Linklater even was able to make the particularly troubling speech about killing Posthumous and raping Imogen ridiculous and funny. He delivered the intense line with the false bravado of a 14-year-old spazz, and thus could be laughed at without feeling horrible that you’re laughing at some pretty gross stuff. Hey. Dark comedy is still comedy am I wrong?

Patrick Page was also great as Iachimo; full of energy, conniving spirit and all of that fun stuff. Actually, pretty much every cast member did their job and did it well.

The set was very well-built. Props for making sure it was whimsical, but not overbearing. A single circular platform that came up from the floor was the only moving part, which was effective and gave a nice throwback to the Elizabethan trapdoor trick.

Oh, and a racoon scurried onto the set during the production I went to. It was delightful, unplanned, and had nothing to do with the play, but, hey, animals should always get a nod if they happen to show up. I’m pretty sure the racoon just wanted to catch a bit of the play. Why wouldn’t he?


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A conversation with the director, Cymbeline

Daniel J. Rowe

Anita Rochon took on Cymbeline in all its facets from comedy to drama to action to romance and all else in between. Photo Credits: Rachel Cairns as Imogen Photo & Image Design by David Cooper & Emily Cooper
Anita Rochon took on Cymbeline in all its facets from comedy to drama to action to romance and all else in between.
Photo Credits: Rachel Cairns as Imogen
Photo & Image Design by David Cooper & Emily Cooper

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?

The ensemble guides the performance of Cymbeline.  Photo credit - David Blue
The ensemble guides the performance of Cymbeline.
Photo credit – David Blue

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.

 

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Bard on the Beach tackles Cymbeline; directed by Anita Rochon

Daniel J. Rowe

It’s romantic, it’s tragic, it’s funny, it’s violent and it’s intriguing and gripping from cover to cover.

Gerry Mackay's Cymbeline is stoic and angry, Shawn Macdonald's Queen duplicitous at Bard on the Beach. photo credit - David Blue
Gerry Mackay’s Cymbeline is stoic and angry, Shawn Macdonald’s Queen duplicitous at Bard on the Beach.
photo credit – David Blue

Vancouver, BC’s Bard on the Beach picked Cymbeline in 2014 as one of its four productions, and  this humble brawler let out a booyeah to be sure. It is one of Shakespeare’s most underrated, exciting and shocking plays.

It was the play I was most excited to check out this year, and the first one I took in.

Anita Rochon directs this late Jacobin-era Shakespearean play (fifth from last) set in the young Roman province of Britain during the imperial reign of Caesar Augustus at the Shakespeare festival this year.

Rochon pulls back with her choice of sets, costumes, and colours, and keeps things simple, while she pushes the energy and rhythm of the performance. She guides the ensemble cast like a team that fences its way through banishment, international struggle and redemption.

…and, you know, what happens to Cloten.

Dang this play is fun.

The six male actors swap roles and circle the female lead Imogen (Rachel Cairns), the daughter of king Cymbeline (Gerry Mackay), who tries along with his queen to force Imogen to marry her stepbrother Cloten and abandon her true love Posthumus that she’s already chosen. You know, standard boy meets girl then girl’s dad gets involved with new wife kind of stuff. Cairns is a standout in the production balancing the swirl of male actors that make up the rest of the ensemble with a steady and powerful presence on stage.

Anton Lipovetsky plays Posthumus, Cloten and Arviragus. Yep. All three. For those that haven’t read or seen the play, Lipovetsky is the romantic lead, the villain and the prodigal son in the same play. Yikes. Someone’s high school drama teacher is proud.

The audience’s laughs at the scheming queen (Shawn Macdonald) and bumbling Cloten soon dry up when the play takes a dramatic dark turn in the second half. I didn’t know what to make of the comedic tone when I first saw it. Cloten and his mother are Cymbeline’s answer to Joffrey Baratheon and Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones; deceitful, despicable characters, and need a touch more evil running through their lines than Macdonald and Lipovetsky gave them I thought originally.

After thinking about it for a while, however, and speaking with the director, I kind of liked the chaos the contrast created. Rochon compared the play to Breaking Bad; sometimes funny, and sometimes so horribly tragic you want to close your eyes for the next week. I like the comparison.

The audience, at points, were laughing at lines and scenes that had no comedy at all. Now who’s going crazy?

Cymbeline/ jailor Mackay got a few of these, which kind of made me laugh. I’ve seen Mackay play Cassius, Alcibiades, Leontes and Achilles in various productions in past years, and was excited that he would be the king this year. He’s always an intense presence on stage.

Take those that were smiling and chuckling as Cloten delivered this monologue:

Posthumus, thy head, which now is growing upon thy shoulders, shall within this hour be off; thy mistress enforced; thy garments cut to pieces before thy face: and all this done, spurn her home to her father; who may haply be a little angry for my so rough usage; but my mother, having power of his testiness, shall turn all into my commendations. My horse is tied up safe: out, sword, and to a sore purpose! Fortune, put them into my hand! – Act IV, i

If you’re laughing at that, you may have already broken bad.

Shakespeare broke bad half a millenia before Vince Gilligan did in Cymbeline. photo credit -
Shakespeare broke bad half a millenia before Vince Gilligan did in Cymbeline.
photo credit – David Blue

Cymbeline is a crazy mosaic of plot points, locale switches, emotional shifts and reveals that come together so nicely in Rochon’s production I like it more and more as I think of it.

If you like to brawl with the bard (BING), you’ll like this play.

The crowds will always flock to A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Romeo and Juliet, and one of the joys of Bard on the Beach is that the troupe always balances the seat fillers with lesser known selections from the Bard’s cannon.

I sometimes wonder why great plays like Timon of Athens, Troilus and Cressida and Cymbeline aren’t more popular, but, in the end, that probably has something to do with why I like them so much.

Indie cred; always important in the oh-so-hip Shakespearean appreciation societies.

Those in Vancouver would do well to catch this production before the summer sun has left and the rain set in on the west coast.   Bard Logo triangle

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