And it’s true, a headless corpse is on stage for goodly portion of Act IV of Cymbeline. The heroine, mistaking the deceased for her husband, swoons and lies unconscious on it. I suppose this is more difficult to process if you’re watching the play on stage – is it appalling? Over the top, unintentionally (or intentionally) funny? Even in audio, I can’t help but feel like Shakespeare has crossed some kind of line – oh sure, there is plenty of decapitation in the plays, especially during his early period. But the headless guy center stage for a rather long time is different – as if he’s somehow still a character.

Cymbeline is a wild ride, even for a Romance, even for one of Shakespeare’s last plays where he might be a little reckless and self-indulgent. One last turn of the girl-dressed-as-boy device; a foolish, fond old king of ancient Britain; an evil stepmother/wicked queen; two remarkable villains – the stupid, savage Cloten and the smoothly deceitful Iachimo; a rumor of murderous mountaineers; and a special appearance by the god Jupiter who promises the hero that he will sort things out. Oh, and did I mention the Roman army?

The madness unfolds in a medium of gorgeous poetry in the late style, and it’s never less than fascinating, but I’m most intrigued by Shakespeare’s almost modern touches of irony and self-referential humor. Surely I’m not imagining the comic intent of having the wicked queen remark plaintively that stepmothers have a reputation for being evil as she secretly plots murder.

The Argo recording of Cymbeline has the fewest professional actors in the series – only two – three if you count the “retired” professional Anthony White, who is excellent as the seducer Iachimo. Denis McCarthy, a frequent BBC Radio actor, is a fine, bewildered King and Gillian Webb an enthusiastic, charming, even youthful Queen.

But most of the cast consists of Cambridge undergrads circa 1960 who presumably went on to do other things. Ian Lang (Posthumus) became a conservative politician, if he is the same Ian Lang who acted as a member of the Cambridge Footlights. And David Rowe-Beddoe (Cloten) became a very distinguished businessman and member of the House of Lords, if that’s the same David Rowe-Beddoe. The dates match, and how many can there be, after all?

Margaret Drabble, the celebrated novelist, is Imogen, the noble heroine. She has a husky voice and a not particularly subtle delivery, but she also has an alertness to the humor of the part that I haven’t come across before. Apparently, she did try acting for a while after graduating, joining the Royal Shakespeare Company no less, but this did not last long and she switched, of course, to writing.

The outstanding question – why is this called a tragedy? There is nothing particularly tragic about the tale, really. Except for that one guy.

Cymbeline with Margaret Drabble, Ian Lang, Denis McCarthy, Anthony White, Gillian Webb, David Rowe-Beddoe.


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