Clear, accessible and female-centric: Shakespeare BASH’d takes on CYMBELINE

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Catherine Rainville as Innogen in Cymbeline, Shakespeare BASH’d; photo by Kyle Purcell

Cymbeline is a complicated and, at times, confusing play” according to Julia Nish-Lapidus, co-Artistic Director of indie theatre company Shakespeare BASH’d. The play is not often produced in Canada, so Shakespeare BASH’d’s new production is an opportunity to see it freshly interpreted with a guiding female voice and perspective that centre on the female character of Innogen (played by Catherine Rainville).  Ahead of her second season at the Stratford Festival’s Michael Langham Workshop for Classical Direction, Nish-Lapidus is clear-eyed about the challenge of directing this little-known play: “There are so many different things going on at all times,… I think it can be scary to program, since you don’t really know where it will fit, or what sort of need it will satisfy for an audience. On top of that, there’s certainly some difficult subject matter that isn’t received the same way now as it likely was four hundred years ago. I can understand why some people would look at this play and decide it’s not the one they’re going to do.”

Despite these red flags, Nish-Lapidus has always been interested in this story that centres on a female character and sends her on a hero’s journey. She sees Innogen as strong and brave, but also loving, sensitive and intelligent. And it was important for Nish-Lapidus to create a production that surrounded Innogen with other women in a variety of roles, so the audience could see diverse female relationships and women as agents of change. And also because “there are so many incredible female actors who should be playing more great roles!” 

As written, Cymbeline calls for 40 or so roles, of which from four to at most six are designated women. Shakespeare BASH’d has tactically streamlined the cast and changed several traditionally male roles to female – something the company has always done in their productions. Because this story is centred on a female character, it felt especially suitable for such adjustments that would push it in a  more female-centric direction. And Nish-Lapidus had specific reasons for choosing which characters would be female in the production. For instance, the traditionally male servant Pisanio, here played by Bailey Green, starts Innogen on her journey and helps her find the strength to begin. Nish-Lapidus wanted to change this significant relationship between a woman and her servant into something more like a friendship:  “I thought it would be interesting to work with the actors to find a strong female friendship that builds Innogen up, giving her love and support in a more meaningful way.”

Déjah Dixon-Green and Melanie Leon play the lost royal children, whom Nish-Lapidus represents as a group of sisters. “These characters don’t know about their royal heritage, but their nobility is in their blood, and can be seen in the honour and strength of their actions.” To have two women represent  natural dignity and royal grace is “exciting”, and situates another type of strong female relationship – that of sisters – at the centre of the play. 

Finally, Nish-Lapidus deliberately made a woman the engine of the more controversial aspects of this play.  She cast Kiana Woo as Philario, who unwittingly plants the seed that turns into the bet between Posthumus and Iachimo about Innogen’s fidelity. “This is a difficult bet to stomach, and I wanted the audience to know that that’s ok, and this is uncomfortable,” the director asserts.  “I felt that having a female character in these scenes, reacting in the discomfort many women would feel, is a way to represent that perspective and shift the way these scenes may be viewed.”

Given the difficult plot points in the play, Nish-Lapidus has immensely enjoyed working with an “incredibly talented and intelligent cast” and navigating these moments from their perspectives as people in 2020. The other cast members include David Mackett as Cymbeline, Jesse Nerenberg as Posthumous, Emilio Vieira as Cloten, Mairi Babb as the Queen,  Daniel Briere as Iachimo, and James Wallis in the dual role of Belarius and Caius Lucius.  Nish-Lipidus smiles broadly, “It’s exciting to get to say, ‘yes, this may be how this scene was intended to be received, but how do we feel about it now? What do we want to say about these actions?’ It’s the moments that you have to dig deep into, sometimes uncomfortably, and see what you can find in it.” She loves the opportunity to wade through the “muck” of ambiguity to find personal perspective and the clarity of the story. 

What makes this play confusing to many people is the exact reason Nish-Lapidus wanted to work on it. Scholars have long disagreed on how to classify Cymbeline: is it a tragedy? Elements of the plot both fit and defy accepted definitions of multiple genres.  “I think there are certainly elements of comedy, tragedy, romance, and history in this play. It shifts constantly, and you could make an argument for any categorization,” Nish-Lapidus maintains. As with any play, she looked for an “in”, something to help the company get into the story and understand it together. “For me, with Cymbeline, that was as a fairy tale. We have it all: a heroine who goes on a journey in the woods, a forbidden love, an evil step-mother, lost royal children, magic, dangerous potions, etc.” This perspective opened up the opportunity for characters  to learn and grow, since fairy tales offer journeys with morals. “So, while there are certainly problematic actions taken by many characters, in our fairy tale, they can learn and grow, moving towards their ‘happily ever after,’ which is different for everyone.” 

In the end, Nish-Lapidus is excited to present the company’s take on this confounding, compelling tale.  She is confident that each audience member will take something different from the story. Some may say it was a comedy, and some a tragedy. Some will find a deliciously liminal fairy tale that resists definition. Her sincere hope is that Shakespeare BASH’d can open up the story to make this Cymbeline “clear and accessible” – and meaningful – for today’s diverse Toronto audiences. 

Graphic: Matt Nish-Lapidus

News You Can Use

What: Cymbeline by William Shakespeare |Stage Manager: Christopher Brackett |Associate Director / Fight Choreographer: Bailey Green |Assistant Fight Choreographer: Mel Leon |Graphic Design: Matt Nish-Lapidus | Director: Julia Nish-Lapidus

Cast: Mairi Babb, Daniel Briere, Déjah Dixon-Green, Bailey Green, Melanie Leon, David Mackett, Jesse Nerenberg, Catherine Rainville, Emilio Vieira, James Wallis, Kiana Woo

When: February 4 – 9, 2020

Where: Junction City Music Hall, 2907 Dundas St W, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: shakespearebashd.com

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020

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