While the weather gods may have smiled on us at Shaftesbury and Longleat, we apparently neglected the appropriate offerings to the spirits of the railway. We arrived at Chippenham Station just in time to hear that our train was cancelled. A quick check of the First Great Western app showed that problems were to be expected for the next hour. That was okay, no need to panic: we had plenty of buffer time before our first booking and decided to decamp to a local café to warm up and wait.
Time passed and length of the delay crept upwards. Every time I hit refresh, a new London-bound train was cancelled. Eventually we got breakfast. After over two hours of waiting, we headed back to the station to check the status in person. Pandemonium. Trains weren’t running to Bath or Bristol, although a single carriage ghost train service was shuttling people between Swindon and Chippenham. If we could get to Swindon, we could continue
our onward journey.
But getting to Swindon also proved tricky. The first trained was rammed and a number of us were left on the platform when it pulled away. We weighed up our options. We could drive to Swindon; take a taxi to Swindon; call a friend to take us to Swindon. None of those were particularly appealing. We could pull the plug on the entire trip: go home, watch movies and eat junk food the next few days. Or we could wait until 1:00pm (our train was originally at 9:30am) and make the decision then. At 12:50pm a train trundled into the station and our decision was made for us. We
We took advantage of the special weekend upgrade pricing to enjoy the journey in First Class, something I definitely recommend if you have a few quid to spare. The free food and drink you’re given more than make up for the cost. While on the train, my husband revealed the first, missed item on our itinerary: a visit to the Wallace Collection. Something to do on another visit perhaps?
We dropped our luggage off at our hotel and headed to the Barbican for our 5:00pm booking at the Osteria. Only there was a slight snag: the host couldn’t find our booking. She went through the list several times. Looked at our print out. Went to get her manager. The manager went through the same procedure, with the same results. She ushered us to a seat and a waiter took our order. The manager returned; my husband had booked the Osteria … in Centerville, Virginia. Thankfully they let us stay.
After a delicious meal, it was on to the next part of our evening, which was perhaps the most surprising part of the entire trip: the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Cymbeline. Although a fan of Shakespeare, neither I nor my husband knew anything about Cymbeline, other than it came highly recommended by Mya Gosling of Good Tickle Brain (you are reading Good Tickle Brain on a regular basis after my last admonition, aren’t you?). WARNING: potential spoilers ahead.
In brief, Cymbeline is about … well, there is no brief way to describe what Cymbeline is about. As a play, it is a collection of Shakespeare’s greatest hits—an ageing monarch and a secret marriage, reunited siblings and a faked death, poison and intrigue, Romans and warfare—combined together to form its own wonderfully weird whole. The programme describes it as:
Often grotesque, and potentially tragic, it is also very funny. It is both highly experimental and highly conventional. It is part history, part patriotic myth, with elements of folk tale. It is, unjustly, one of the most neglected plays in the canon.
As a theatrical experience, the RSC production was certainly up there with some of the finest.
First, we were in the second row, with no one sitting directly in front of us. This was sheer viewing bliss. I find it much easier to get engrossed in the story and enjoy the acting when I don’t have to squint or try to see around someone’s head. However, it did introduce its own problems. A pair of women in the front row spent part of the first act commenting on the show; while they were quiet in the sense of not speaking at full volume, it was loud enough for us and other nearby audience members to hear.
Eventually a person a few seats away could no longer take it. “Shut up!” he hissed. The women laughed. But they were quiet(er) the rest of the show. This also caused me to think about how performances must have originally been seen in the raucous atmosphere of the Globe, where quiet was the last thing on anyone’s mind. I also wondered: How many were being initiated, as we were, into the marvels and mysteries of Cymbeline and how many were already fans of this quirky play? And if the latter, what did they make of the major casting changes?
In what was a first for me (but which is apparently bang on trend), the production swapped the genders of several main characters. Cymbeline, the king of the Britons, became their queen. Her conniving spouse is transformed into the Duke. Faithful servant Pisanio becomes faithful servant Pisania. And the missing son and heir Guiderius likewise blossoms into huntress Guideria.
Changing the genders of the main characters worked far better than I ever imagined it could by breaking the stereotypes and Shakespearean templates one is used to. Instead of a wicked stepmother or an English Lady MacBeth, the Duke becomes his own creation, a slick spouse making a power grab from behind the scenes. With a female Cymbeline, the subtext becomes a mother’s search for her missing children, and Cloten’s threats against Pisania hint at sexual violence, adding a dark edge to an otherwise comic character.
But the very core of the play remained the same: Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen whose secret marriage to Posthumus kicks off the whole furore. Indeed, it should be called Innogen as the literal and spiritual journey of the princess is at the very heart of the play. And what a princess! Only Brave’s Merida comes close in the Disney pantheon. Bethan Cullinane was stunning in the role as she took herself and the audience off on an emotional roller coaster, the damsel in distress who rescues herself.
The programme notes that they envisioned the play set in a post-Brexit dystopia, but I saw in it shades of the past: vengeful Boudica and her daughters. There was also unexpected comedy as I spent a good portion of the production thinking there had to be a joke in there somewhere about the lax security at the palace. Two children stolen away in infancy. A voyeur able to sneak into the princess’ room. A prince and a princess both able to disappear from the palace without noticing. For a dystopian future, they seemed to forget about CCTV.
And I haven’t even mentioned the appearance of the god Jupiter as a literal deus ex machina to save the day. Or the set that cleverly plays with the theme of nature vs. civilisation, and mirrors Posthumus’ search for his own roots. Or the incredible performances by the rest of the cast, especially Oliver Johnstone as the slimy (but ultimately honest) Iachimo. As I already said, there is no “brief” with Cymbeline, so I will stop there, and just add that if you have the opportunity to see the RSC’s production—and you’re not opposed to a little gender swapping and a contemporary take on the Bard—then head to the theatre or cinema and check it out.
As for me, there was still one day to go. Check back on Tuesday for the final part of my incredible birthday/anniversary trip.[Many apologies if you subscribe to MissElaineous Musings by email; it appears to have been a day off, but this should now be fixed.]