Shakespeare With a Twang Brings Wild West to Wales

I think, on reflection, that it would be a good thing if we could agree to a moratorium on all productions of Shakespeare that are set in the Wild West.

Rest assured, I’ve nothing against cowboys. How manly they can look on the range, with their 10-gallon hats and bull whips. I would also hope it’s apparent after all these happy years that celebrating the thrillingly new is no stranger to these columns. But when the admired production of Shakespeare’s difficult late romance Cymbeline by the Theatre for a New Audience–a favorite company of mine–goes in for the Wild West look, we owe it to ourselves to ask if the chaps are up to the task.

The popularizing approach of the director, Bartlett Sher, isn’t new, although the combination of his Shakespearean cowboys with samurai warriors is a first. Some astonished seasons ago, I saw a Central Park production of The Merry Wives of Windsor that was set in the Wild West. It might have worked better had Shakespeare entitled the play The Merry Wives of Austin . But that’s not what he wanted to do. As it is, Merry Wives is Shakespeare’s only comedy to take place specifically in England. (Illyria doesn’t count.)

Cymbeline , on the other hand, is set in pagan Britain during the Roman occupation, which for mysterious reasons Mr. Sher has now transferred to an approximation of Japan; in Rome, here set in Renaissance Italy; and in Wales, where hunters live in mountain caves, which now becomes the jolly Wild West of guns, guitars and even the bow and arrow. Throw into the stew the cretinous Queen’s son, Cloten, as a samurai dueling a cowboy whose whip sure whups and a-whops the critter real good, and you get the time-bending picture. Add two modern storytellers in bow ties drifting in and out of the action like apparitions of George Will, and we’re almost there.

But where’s there, if not nowhere? The director’s fun and games have their charms (and they get their laughs). The affable first-act country-and-western closer is neat, and they get away with it. But we’re in the wrong play. We’re not in the frolicsome early comedies where anything goes. With dense and convoluted Cymbeline , we’re entitled to ask how, for example, we’re to appreciate what’s at stake in the battle between Rome and proud Britons “strutting with courage” when the British are Japanese. While to portray the steely Welsh as cowboys on the range might be a good, mad joke, and even a broad Shakespearean cowboy twang can be musical, the greatest–and darkest–of all Shakespeare’s songs loses something when performed as a Serious Moment from the Grand Ole Opry:

Fear no more the heat o’ th’ sun,

Nor the furious winter’s rages

Thou thy worldly task hast done,

Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.

What could better speak to us through time than those grieving words?

Although few of us would claim to be on intimate terms with Cymbeline , the director’s nervous insistence that we’re all prone to Attention Deficit Disorder is fashionably the wrong emphasis of making Shakespeare “relevant.” Ours are awesomely literal-minded days. But we refuse to be literal-minded theatergoers! Fresh approaches to Shakespeare are always welcome, not always a delight. In England, alas, it often comes down to setting Shakespeare’s plays in the customary places: Edwardian London/Fascist Germany/World War I and so on. The comforting concepts themselves are by now as familiar as the thousandth production of Twelfth Night . So the Wild West jokes and samurai warriors of the current Cymbeline are said to make Shakespeare “relevant” because they’re more “contemporary” and therefore “accessible.” But I would argue that a samurai warrior is no closer to us than an ancient Brit, and that a stage cowboy is about as authentic as Ralph Lauren.

“‘The present’ and ‘contemporary’ are not the same thing,” Peter Brook wrote in a useful essay called “Evoking Shakespeare.” A director can take any play of Shakespeare and make it contemporary in the simplest, crudest way. For instance, you can have people coming on stage with guns and riding motorbikes, and they can shit onstage. There are a hundred ways in which you can bring something into the recognizable present. As a director you are free, but this freedom brings you unavoidably against a tough and painful question. You have to ask yourself as a director: Are you in touch with all the levels of the writing that are rich, fruitful, meaningful and life-giving, as much today as in the past, or are you saying either “I haven’t noticed these levels,” or “They are not interesting,” or just “I don’t care”?

Text is all, as Mr. Sher surely knows. Is he truly in touch with it here? He’s given himself a daunting task. To summarize the messy, absurd twists and turns of Cymbeline ‘s plot alone would kill a scholarly horse. It’s a fantastic fable of love and loss, eroticism and incest, of murderous forces, faith and war that ends in astonishing reconciliation and peace for all. Shakespeare famously borrowed from himself–the wicked Queen with her poisonous potions who’s a shadowy Lady Macbeth; the cross-gender disguise of lovely Imogen echoing the early comedies when she goes in search of her banished husband; the imitation Othello-Iago of the jealous, ruined Posthumus, victim of his own stupidity, and the scheming Iachimo. But the play remains a problem, like a dream-nightmare that can never quite be solved.

“Strange, yet it is true,” the storyteller says of the lurching improbabilities of its story. Harold Bloom tends to condemn the play as Shakespeare’s self-parody, which might have encouraged the present director to parody the parody. If Mr. Bloom is right, however, we must conjure up an image of a Shakespeare sick of the sound of his own voice. “Another day,” sayeth the Bard, wearily reaching for his quill, “another boring masterpiece …. ” The theory humanizes the deity Shakespeare, at least. But if he was tired out by the time he wrote Cymbeline , what accounts for the masterpieces The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest which followed?

Yet for all Mr. Sher’s effects, his production at center is admirably simple, the tone appealingly good-natured. The staging can be too careful in its prettiness, even solemn–as if, against all outer appearances, the new production is genuinely in search of inner seriousness. The shiny, minimalist black-and-red set with its startling, translucent yellow curtain sweeping diagonally across the stage establishes Christopher Akerlind as one of our very best set and lighting designers. The ensemble is mostly impressive, and there were several individual performances I liked, particularly the assured verse-speaking of Robert Stattel’s Cymbeline and Randy Danson’s Queen, the wit of Earl Hindman’s banished Belarius (the cowboy lord) and the take-no-prisoners low comedy of Andrew Weems’ clotted Cloten, clomping about the place as both a deranged samurai and a crapping horse.

In the end, as the acrobat said as he crashed to earth, it’s a question of balance. The fun of Mr. Sher’s Cymbeline is out of key with the fable’s savage and tender mercies. The play’s forgiving fairy-tale end induces our tears. “Pardon’s the word to all.” Yet here we’re sent home with a smile as the cast sings a rousing new song: “Love is everywhere, its music fills the air.” It sounded naggingly familiar, somehow …. It’s Mamma Mia! within Cymbeline ! It’s the lost ABBA within the Bard!

There’s just no escape.