Theatre Review: ‘Cymbeline’ at Shakespeare Tavern

Jonathan Horne and Anna Fontaine
Jonathan Horne and Anna Fontaine

By Manning Harris

The intrepid Shakespeare Tavern is probably the only theatre in town with the chutzpah to tackle Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline,” now running through Sept. 27.

It’s a problematical play just about any way you slice it: Celebrated Shakespearean scholar (and lover of the Bard) Harold Bloom says it’s more a dramatic poem than a play; he senses that “something is wayward about this drama; it will not abide a steady contemplation.”

The legendary critic Dr. Samuel Johnson fumed: “The play has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity.” He even says that to go on “were to waste criticism upon unresisting imbecility, upon faults too evident for detection.” I think Dr. Johnson goes a bit far.

My own view is that Shakespeare, near the end of his career, was simply having a little fun; he had nothing left to prove, and for me he’s dabbling a bit in theatre of the absurd. And one must remember that he’s Shakespeare—the literary and dramatic genius of the ages. So we’re going to have some fun lines and scenes; how can we not? Also, no one knows better than Shakespeare that good actors can work minor miracles; the Tavern, happily, has very good actors.

“Cymbeline” is sometimes lumped with the last of the tragedies on the theme of reconciliation, the others being “The Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest” (two masterpieces). Or sometimes it’s called one of the late romances; I personally found it quite a frolic, with some dark undertones.

As for the plot, let’s turn to the Tavern’s program notes: “Cymbeline, king of Britain, has an evil second wife who wishes to see her own oafish son, Cloten, wedded to Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen. But Imogen, against her father’s will, has married Posthumus Leonatus, who is banished: before parting he gives a bracelet to Imogen.”

We’re just getting started; if you like to know the whole plot before seeing a play, Google was invented just for you. The story of “Cymbeline” is elaborate and farfetched, even for an Elizabethan play. It also has lots of melodrama. So just go with the flow and have fun.

Two scenes that stand out for me are the comic villain Iachimo’s (played by the always interesting Jonathan Horne) stealing of a bracelet from the sleeping Imogen (Anna Fontaine) in a scene that almost, but doesn’t, become R-rated. The only problem in using an actor as smooth and magnetic as Mr. Horne is that when he’s offstage there’s suddenly a void.

Another fun scene occurs in Act IV when that dodo-bird Cloten (Kevin Roost) starts musing: “It is not vain-glory for a man and his glass to confer in his own chamber—I mean, the lines of my body are as well drawn as his…” Let’s just say Mr. Roost has a comedy sense that I hope he gets to use a lot more; he is a stitch.

Paul Hester’s Postumus has a powerful moment at the end of Act I. Other nice performances include Troy Willis as Cymbeline; Anna Fontaine as Imogen; Mary Russell as the Queen; J. Tony Brown as Belarius; Trey York as Guiderius; and Stephen Ruffin as Cadwal. Also effective are Mary Ruth Ralston, Matt Nitchie, and Adam King.

The production is directed by Shakespeare Tavern Artistic Director Jeffrey Watkins.

Let’s face it: There aren’t that many opportunities to see a live “Cymbeline.” If you’re a Shakespeare devotee, I wouldn’t miss it.

For tickets and information, visit