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Shakespeare Quarterly 58.2 (2007) 228-237

Kneehigh's Dream of Cymbeline
Valerie Wayne

The theater group invited to produce Cymbeline as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company's Complete Works season is called Kneehigh, a Cornish company known for its physical performance style and vigorous adaptations of texts as diverse as Tristan & Yseult, Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus, and Euripides' Bacchae. The company had never produced Shakespeare before mounting the production that ran at the Swan Theater, Stratford, from 20 to 30 September 2006 and toured in eight other locations in England. This Cymbeline, directed and adapted by Emma Rice and written by Carl Grose, reminds one of a dream in which the play's own buried hopes, unstaged scenes, and implicit themes are made real and new. Instead of opening and closing with the problem of Posthumus's identity, it foregrounds the fragmented family, especially a father weighed down by the loss of his two sons and first wife, and a daughter who is without her mother, her two brothers, and her husband. At the end of this production, four reunited children (including Posthumus, played by Carl Grose) are shown poring over photographs of themselves when they were young and being tucked into their beds by their father as the entire family sings "Dusk is nature's lullaby."1 In place of an opaque exegesis of a more opaque prophecy, these characters recover the safe places of their youth and reconnect with their earlier selves, as well as one another. Kneehigh plumbs the depths of Cymbeline's drive toward familial wholeness in order to make it new.

The production opens with homeless people in hooded parkas tacking a piece of cardboard to the cage-like castle walls of Cymbeline's palace and spray-painting it with the word "REMEMBER." It is the twentieth anniversary of the kidnapping of the king's two sons, and the wall becomes a makeshift memorial of photographs, flowers, and a teddy bear. When Cymbeline (Mike Shepherd) enters, he pulls down the sign and shreds the photographs (Figure 1), for he lacks the strength to remember; but it is memory that saves everyone in this version of the play, and the evil characters are the agents of oblivion. The Queen (Emma Rice/Amanda Lawrence), the king's former nurse, drugs Cymbeline so he will forget, sings a song [End Page 228]

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Figure 1
Cymbeline (Mike Shepherd) destroys the makeshift memorial for his lost sons. Reproduced courtesy of Kneehigh Theatre, in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company, co-commissioned by Nottinghamshire County Council. Photograph by Steve Tanner ©
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to console him called "I am the only one here,"2 and admits, before she kills herself with an injection, that she hated him. Iachimo (Róbert Lučkay) superficially thrives on the company of four Italian prostitutes and two Ferraris, but in this play without simple villains, we even learn about his broken family.

Kneehigh's adaptation is and is not Shakespeare. The basic plot is in place, the emotional depths are there, but the language and culture are contemporary. I counted about 200 lines from Shakespeare in Kneehigh's text; the rest of the play is in modern free verse with occasional rhyme or in prose. One character is new: a pantomime dame named Joan Puttock (Mike Shepherd), buoyantly returned from the Costa del Sol, learns what has gone on in the previous twenty years and declares, "It's like a Shakespeare play! Everyone's either miserable or dead!"3 She provides a detailed plot summary, which received enthusiastic applause from a grateful audience, and her winking account of Posthumus as "the little orphan boy Cymbeline named and raised as his own"4 implies that he is the king's illegitimate son. Joan has her own photos to share with folks back in Britain, but she also has a key from Cymbeline's first wife to the box that Jupiter gave to Posthumus, which turns out to contain those treasured photographs of...


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