Cymbeline isn’t exactly the Bard’s best known and most revered play. Even among the later romances, The Winter’s Tale and The Tempest always manage to wrangle their way in front. In India in the 1880s, however, this was far from the case; there, the semi-parodic, mischievous text (a scene is set in Milford Haven, of all places) was Shakespeare’s third most performed play of the time. It doesn’t take much of a leap of faith, then, to see why Phizzical and director Samir Bhamra have chosen to transpose the play to Bombay in 1993, against the backdrop of the Bollywood film industry.
Phizzical is one of the UK’s leading British Asian performing arts companies, and with productions like Romeo and Laila and The Maids under its belt, it is no stranger to adaptations. Bhamra recognised that many of the characters and relationships in Shakespeare’s late play (which, at its centre, follows the journey of a king and his daughter) “sounded much like a Bollywood film”, so has lifted it from the original setting and tweaked character names to suit his vision. “Instead of making a Bollywood pastiche, I looked at the real stories of people connected to the film industry, considering their link with the 1992 riots in Bombay. Crucially, these prominent stars have pressures from external factors that threaten to ruin their lives,” Bhamra suggests. “Cymbeline enables us to look beyond the veneer of their smile.”
Nia Lynn, who works as a voice coach for the Royal Shakespeare Company, has been part of the process alongside Bhamra, in order to help actors get to grips with the rhythms of Shakespeare’s language. With a complex, sometimes problematic play like Cymbeline, however, this can be a difficult task. “What Shakespeare gives us on the page is always open to discussion, debate and – most of all – trial and error,” Lynn tells me. Though difficult, it is this challenge which makes tackling work like this all the more exciting: “that’s what I love about these plays, especially tricky ones like Cymbeline”.
Sometimes, Lynn explains to me, the company “had to find alternate words or phrases to match the rhythm and flow of language without breaking the Bollywood bubble”, mixing together two styles of dialogue and speech without losing the uniqueness of Shakespeare’s poetry. Thus Belarius becomes Bella, Iachimo becomes Yakim and the Queen becomes Malika. All of the roles are played by only six actors, meaning some characters have to be conflated into one whilst quick costume changes help elsewhere.
Funnily enough, Lynn’s previous training was as a “musician singer”, which became invaluable for Bhamra within the rehearsal room considering his desire to set some of the songs from the play to already existing Bollywood hits. In Cymbeline, Phizzical hopes to use this clash of cultures to help open up Shakespeare’s late play to new audiences, which Lynn admits was a great draw for her whilst working on the project: “It was a great challenge but most of all I found it a lot of fun exploring a culture and medium I knew nothing about”.
This production, Bhamra hopes, will thus appeal to both Shakespearean stalwarts and new audiences alike, offering something for everyone. Those who know the play well may be surprised by how versatile and universal its narrative is, whilst audiences with little experience of Cymbeline will come to know the text well through this production’s use of movement and music as a means of telling a story. Ultimately, Bhamra says, he aims “to honour Shakespeare’s imagination with a sense of adventure using contemporary South Asian influences.” This is easier said than done however, as he happily admits: “there is a truth when Cymbeline says ‘fortune brings in some boats that are not steered.’”
In the next couple of years, this may be a play of which we see a lot more; an upcoming Hollywood film directed by Michael Almereyda starring Ethan Hawke and Ed Harris is likely to renew both academic and popular interest in this often-forgotten play. Phizzical’s Cymbeline therefore comes at the perfect time, demonstrating the need to continue reviving and watching the lesser-known plays in Shakespeare’s canon in order to experience work which still has the power to surprise. Cymbeline is one of the Bard’s most modern, eclectic plays, and Bhamra’s production looks to be one which acknowledges its magpie-like attitude to cultural artefacts. Lynn sums it up perfectly: “This production would appeal to any age range and background so long as they have openness in their heart to see the light and the dark in life and be able to take it all (as with the story’s moralistic slant) with a pinch of salt.”
Phizzical’s production of Cymbeline is touring until 5 December. For more information and tour dates, please visit Phizzical’s website.
Photos by Robert Day.