Get thee to a Nunnery

29 September 2007

In a small room near Temple tube station, a story has been unravelling. It is a not-often-told story about many, many different things: lost children; horrible step-parents; ridiculous names; cross-dressing; and a grizzly decapitation. In all, the usual Shakespearean fare. Except, it’s a bit like a cross between “This Is Your Life” and the playwright’s own version of the “Reduced Shakespeare Company’s Complete Works“: Cymbeline could be a re-run of Lear, Posthumus an Othello, Iachimo an Iago – give or take a few letters – and Cloten as something of a Laertes. Samuel Johnson certainly didn’t like it, saying as he did: “To remark the folly of the fiction, the absurdity of the conduct, the confusion of the names, and manners of different times, and the impossibility of the events in any system of life, were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection, and too gross for aggravation.”

Yet, over the last two years, “Cymbeline” has seen something of a resurgence. Earlier this year Declan Donnelan’s company Cheek by Jowl put on a well received production and earlier still, in 2006, Kneehigh Theatre Company also brought this little known Shakespeare back with a flourish as part of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival. Artistic Director Emma Rice and her company boldly adapted the play, bringing out the fairy story of the piece and providing, as she put it, “more twists and turns than a Cornish lane.” In fact, the text was entirely re-written and modernised: the lost brothers were commemorated with a Diana-like shrine and a chorus of Parka clad youths were introduced, as well as such language as Cloten’s, “You saucy milky moo! You dirty girl you! Go on. Suck my toes.” As writer Carl Grose pointed out, it was a production more “inspired by Shakespeare” than faithful to him.

Now, Sir Trevor Nunn’s upcoming student production of “Cymbeline”, with The Marlowe Society, is aiming for a similar rediscovery of the stories in the play but perhaps without such excessive textual interference. Having made his Marlowe Society Debut in 1960 in a production of “Cymbeline”, it is perhaps an understandable choice, separate from this seeming vogue towards the play. In that production, his director George “Dadie” Rylands – an English don at Kings – was very particular and precise about the verse but, as Rupert Christiansen notes, “the approach to the text has become freer – working on ‘Cymbeline’, Nunn isn’t insisting on the regular pentameter line that Rylands sought as the heartbeat.” In fact, Nunn has made some alterations to the script, reassigning lines and emphasising the importance of the Chorus, of their role in storytelling and their weaving of the fabric that binds the different tales together. Yet, the text remains king.

It has been, admittedly, a rare opportunity for the student cast and crew to work with a professional such as Nunn and many have said they have been challenged and stretched. The production is an annual event of The Marlowe Society, one of Cambridge’s oldest societies which focuses on bringing together the student and professional theatre worlds, in so doing producing high-quality, innovative student drama. Other regular events include a range of workshops, a fortnightly scriptlab, the annual awarding of The Marlowe/RSC’s ‘Other Prize’ for new writing and a May Week show. For more information, take a look at It is without a doubt one of the highlights of the Cambridge theatrical year: many wait with anticipation as to what Sir Trevor will pull out from under his signature denim sleeve.

As for TCS, we also have a few tricks up our sleeve: coming in the next issue a full interview with Sir Trevor himself…

“Cymbeline”: Cambridge Arts Theatre, 1st – 6th October, 7:45pm (matinee Thu/Sat, 2:30pm), £10/£15/£20