Cymbeline has, without a doubt, the most complicated mesh of plot and sub-plot of any of Shakespeare’s plays. The play is so overburdened with ironic banter, allusion, and intrigue that the text and action threaten collapse at any moment. The story line includes court intrigue, kidnapping, banishments, arrests, death plots, accusation of infidelity, attempted poisonings, beheadings, and war. It is quite a feat to keep track of who is doing what to whom. The play could be described as eclectic anarchy. As such, the production is a quite a challenge for the artistic team.
For the costume design response I focused on the geographical identity of the principle protagonists. There is the Imperial Court in Rome, the Court of King Cymbeline, the Roman soldiers posted in Britain, and the banished nobles in the countryside near Milford Haven. My first goal was to make sure all these disparate characters were easily differentiable on stage.
My design response was also informed by the curious lines of the banished noble Belarius in Scene III. It is a beautiful and forlorn passage where Belarius describes his life at court before banishment as a tree full of fruit:
Whose boughs did bend with fruit, but in one night A storm or robbery, call it what you will, Shook down my mellow hangings, nay, my leaves And left me bare to weather Cymbeline is full of storms; political storms, storms of treachery, storms of vengeance, and inner emotional storms. The story line is full of protagonists left bare to the caprice of human nature. Here Shakespeare uses the pastoral trope to imbue nature with the power to physically and emotionally heal those who have been hurt by “the art o’ the court.” Political and emotional tempests at court are juxtaposed with a bucolic and life sustaining nature in the woods near Milford Haven. In British literature from the mediaeval period through the 17th century the court was written as a sanctuary against the elements of the natural world. The central irony in the play is that nature emerges as sanctuary from the vicissitudes of court.
Thus geography and “climate” were very important in the costume design response. The clothes of court were crisply structured, elegant, and cold. The clothes of Belarius, Guiderius, and Arviragus were roughly hewn, earthy, and warm. The goal was to inform the audience of the life threatening climate of the court and the life affirming climate of the countryside.