The company of the Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, recently reconstituted on the South Bank of the Thames, is making its first U.S. foray this month with a leisurely visit (almost two weeks) to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Mark Rylance, the acclaimed actor who is the company’s artistic chief, introduced the company’s performances at BAM with a brief tribute to Sam Wanamaker, the American thesp who was instrumental in the creation of the theater. It was a gracious touch that put one in an affectionate mood, but three and a half hours later, it was hard not to wish the company had chosen a happier vehicle for its U.S. debut.
It happens that New York has seen a pair of solid stagings of “Cymbeline” in the past few seasons, in Central Park and Off Broadway, where Bartlett Sher’s funky romp through the romance closed just days before the Globe’s opened in Brooklyn. The Globe production approached Shakespeare’s complicated play in a manner diametrically opposed to that to Sher & Co. While Sher played up the text’s overstuffed nature by piling on layers of playful and stylistically contradictory touches, the Globe’s “master of play” Mike Alfreds stripped everything away, leaving only text and actors to make theatrical magic.
So the play’s myriad roles were performed by just six actors, all clad in variations on the same cream-colored pajamas. Those not involved in a scene observed the action, as did two musicians who plinked and plonked on various Far Eastern percussion instruments to set or change moods (ironically, this was the same kind of soundscape used by Sher & Co. — with tongue somewhat in cheek).
The house lights were kept up, and the actors gently and charmingly guided the audience through the various subplots as they diverged and converged, moving from Britain to Italy to Milford Haven. Confusion was not a problem, and the battle scenes of the second act were quite delightfully reduced to a few funny tableaux vivants.
That the six actors managed to convincingly personify the play’s strange variety of characters argued in favor of their versatility, but against their distinctiveness. With a few exceptions, the performances were competently spoken but lacking in particularity and excitement. A blandness somehow allied to the director’s minimalist approach began to gnaw away at one’s interest.
One could lodge a few specific complaints: Jane Arnfield’s Imogen was lacking in charm, and the actress is prone to distracting and artificial gesticulation. Terry McGinity differentiated his Cymbeline from his other assignments chiefly by bellowing that character’s lines indiscriminately.
Rylance’s doltish Cloten was the clear audience favorite, so much so that the performance began to droop noticeably after his decapitation. But Rylance labored pretty hard for his comic effects, and his Posthumus was disappointing: wimpy in the early going and amorphously soulful later on. It would have been nice to see this richly gifted actor in a more substantial Shakespearean assignment.
Indeed, the choice of “Cymbeline” for the less-is-more treatment works against the play’s strengths. Unlike many another Shakespeare play one could name, “Cymbeline” does not derive its energies primarily from the beauty of its language or the depth of its characterizations; instead, it is the colorful machinery of the plot and the wealth of exotic incident that provide the dramatic momentum. The Globe’s production, which smoothed out the exotic colors of the play through its ascetic approach, thus emphasized its weak points and downplayed its strengths. The result was a bit wan, like a tapestry left in the sun too long that has been bleached of color and definition.