We received this query the other day:
Hi-I'm trying to figure out this production. Is it authentic Shakespeare or some more recent adaptation? Supposed to be set in Roman Britain primarily. But all the publicity photos I've seen show a bunch of guys carrying 1880's vintage American lever action rifles!!! What gives??
Good question, and perfectly legitimate too. Indeed our publicity photos do show three guys with rifles who look more like they came out of True Grit than ancient Britain. It turns out since we took those photos in the Garden of the Gods, we've ditched the rifles. But not because they are not period appropriate.
What is the appropriate period for Shakespeare plays? If you are strict constitionalist, you might go back to the original--but the original might surprise you. Here is the only contemporary drawing of a Shakespeare play in performance sketched by a spectator at the Globe.
Henry Peacham, sketch of a scene from Titus Andronicus, Longleat manuscript, 1595
This is a scene from Titus Andronicus, a play set in the Roman period, like Cymbeline. But what's most conspicuous about the costumes is that they are quite a mixed bag. The dark figure on the right is clearly Roman, as perhaps are the kneeling figures. But the people on the left are distinctly Elizabethan, dressed in the clothes of Shakespeare's contemporaries. So when you go to the source what you find is kind of a mash-up, costuming that reflects both period and modern dress.
Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's most period diverse plays: it seems to be taking place in Roman Britain, Renaissance Italy and wild Wales, which is a place and time all its own. It is also a play about costumes and clothes: the words "garment" and "fit" occur more times than in any other play by Shakespeare, and the word "fit" seems to mean spasm as well as suit. In the original production a cast of a dozen or so actors played more than 30 roles--they must have been changing garments and outfits all the time. One character specifically is built so like another he fits perfectly fit into the other's clothes--indeed you wonder whether these were meant for the same actor.
We have adopted Shakespeare's own practices in designing our production, which combines both period and contemporary elements. The play is a singular mash-up, a fractured fairy tale which proceeds in fits and starts, and ends with happy and comprhehensive wonder. So, for instance, the character of Belarius, the old warrior who is raising stolen princes in a cave way out in Wales, looks like this in the sketch by Rose Fox, our designer:
Hardly a figure out of Roman Britain, right? But we think he is Shakespeare's Belarius even so--with his tartan and fur and hat, a compound of Scottish romance and Amrican western---you could even make a case that Rooster Cogburn is one of his descendants. Both are rough, ready and good hearted.
And yes, we thought about the eye patch too--but decided against it, along with the rifles. A rifle makes nonsense out of a swordfight, unless it's unloaded--something that would never happen in Wales or Colorado). So in the flesh and on stage here is our Belarius (Tom Paradise), along with his princess (Susan Maris).
Tom Paradise (Belarius), Susan Maris (Imogen)
Which simply goes to show you that now, as then, Shakespeare is not of an age but for all time.