Culture Editor Imogen Tink sits down with Bethan Cullinane, currently starring as ‘Innogen’ in the RSC’s production of Cymbeline.
Starring as ‘Innogen’ in the RSC’s current production of Cymbeline, Bethan Cullinane was an absolute joy to talk to. Alongside Cymbeline, Bethan is currently appearing in King Lear at the RSC. Having played Guildenstern in Hamlet earlier this year, she has spent much of 2016 completely absorbed in the world of Shakespeare. As we settled down in ‘The Other Place’, the RSC’s brand new theatre space, we discussed all sorts, from the relationship between actors and their directors to the details of staging a live theatre screening.
Cymbeline itself is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known plays; a tale including an eclectic mix of both tragedy and comedy, ensuring that critics have always found it difficult to define the play. Consequently it has always been a somewhat mysterious feature of the Bard’s literary works. Bethan indicated that performing this concoction of humour and grotesque violence completely came together during the early performances of the play: the audience’s reaction is crucial in judging how to perform. In particular it is Innogen, who Bethan labelled a ‘more serious character’ compared to others, who must cope with fairly tragic and traumatic events, including waking up next to a dead body whose head has been parted from its shoulders. The sheer ridiculousness of this situation often provokes a humorous response from audiences; it is too grotesque to be taken seriously. Yet other moments are made poignant by the audience’s response to the sheer emotion being acted out on stage. ‘If you can make someone laugh, you can then make them cry’ Bethan explained, as she emphasised the impact that each audience has in terms of shaping each night’s performance, and, in turn, the empathy that an emotional performance encourages them to feel.
The mixture of these moments of brutality and extreme tenderness permeates Cymbeline, as the play deals with multiple stories varying from the complex issue of succession, to the prominence of familial love. Bethan spoke warmly of her co-stars, particularly James Cooney and Natalie Simpson who play her long-lost siblings Arviragus and Guideria. The company is very close – Bethan described director Melly Still as “very company orientated” – and rub along together extremely well, although Bethan did giggle that “sometimes it’s dangerous as we can have too much fun on stage!”
Cymbeline portrays the story of young characters growing into adulthood in an adult world in chaos; interestingly Melly Still decided to set the performance in a dystopian future. Bearing in mind the events of the past year, I asked Bethan whether she found that depicting the play in this way was significant. Indeed, the depiction of an isolated Britain seems even more poignant since the outcome of the EU Referendum. Despite starting rehearsals in January, long before the results of Brexit were established, Bethan was keen to stress how the play emphasises the nature of history repeating itself, and the timeless resonance of the events depicted in Shakespeare’s works in the modern day. Shakespeare often used historical analogies about the past to disguise the message he was sending about the events occurring in his own time, and this means that modern directors and actors can interpret these ideas in their own way. Bethan is a keen advocate for both tradition and innovation. “Why not work with Shakespeare and adapt things?” she asked. “We’ve got to try. Even if audiences don’t entirely understand what we are trying to convey, they will see elements of it that interest them and that will encourage our audience to do something new too.”
In this increasingly chaotic and isolated world, gathering a group of people from all walks of life together into one community is so very important. One such way of achieving this is through the communal experiences of theatre. “Theatre is so special,” Bethan said, “because you simply have to forget everything else. It’s not like sitting down in front of the television with your phone to hand. You just have to immerse yourself.” I asked Bethan what she thought about what the next few years will hold for the world of theatre and she believes that the future is bright. “I think it’s moving in the right direction. There was a time where the theatre was becoming too much for a certain type of person, and I think certainly our generation are bringing it back to being for the wider community.” She spoke of the comforting nature of the universal aspect of Shakespeare’s works; Shakespeare’s presentation of human nature, and the feelings and emotions he conveys through his characters, whether they are in love, grieving, joyful or broken-hearted, are things we still feel and experience now. Bethan expressed a deep comfort in the fact that “someone 400 years ago was feeling the same, and wrote it down”, emphasising the timeless and universal appeal of Shakespeare’s plays.
On the 28th of September there will be a live screening of Cymbeline in cinemas across the UK. Bethan was immediately enthusiastic about this relatively new concept, stressing how much more accessible live screenings make theatre. The screening of Hamlet earlier this year was incredibly popular. Paapa Eisiedu was the first black actor to play Hamlet at the RSC; Bethan mentioned that after the live screening of that particular production the audiences noticeably started to change; people of many different ethnicities and of a younger generation have started to fill the seats of the RSC Theatre, therefore audiences have been transformed. Hopefully, in the event of further live theatre screenings from the RSC, more and more people, young and old, with or without a passion for the Bard, will feel encouraged to see more theatre. It is heartening to see that the works of William Shakespeare, written 400 years ago, continue to consistently affect everyday people. Long may it continue.
‘So through Lud’s town march,
And in the temple of great Jupiter
Our peace we’ll ratify, seal it with feasts.
Set on there. Never was a war did cease,
Ere bloody hands were washed, with such a peace.’
Cymbeline, Act 5 Scene 5.
Click here to read our review of Cymbeline, which will be at Stratford-upon-Avon until the 15th of October: http://www.redbrick.me/culture/review-culture/review-cymbeline-rsc/
And click here to see Bethan interviewed in person! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuJT1kPXNqs