Sunday, 17 June 2018

The Sudden Topicality of Shakespeare's BREXIT Cymbeline

Coin of Cynobelinus King of Britain
How about writing a play about a British leader manipulated into leaving a peaceful alliance with Europe and go it alone in barbarous isolation? Oh, hang on—Shakespeare did one. As the Brexit negotiations descend into pandemonium (my own in-the-wrong-party MP Heidi Allen is a leading Tory rebel), I hereby beg my theatre friends to stage Shakespeare’s Cymbeline, topical as never before, more than 400 years since it premiered.

Shakespeare based Cymbeline on the historical British King Cynobelinus, whose reign began in the first decade CE. The bard admired Cynobelinus’ coins as drawn in the 1607 edition of William Camden’s Britannia, before which the historical Roman province of Britannia had never before been understood as a physical, material reality. When James I/VIth came to the throne in 1603, he projected himself as the Roman Emperor Augustus, who, after a long period of civil war, brought Rome to peace, alliances, and unity.

Brexiteers Cloten (left) & his mum work on intuitive Remainer Cymbeline
Cymbeline, educated on the Continent, is a happy ally of Rome. His xenophobic new wife wants to secure Brexit, kill him and Assume Total Power with her yobbish son Cloten. In the prescient Act III scene 1, she goads Cymbeline into insulting Caius Lucius, the virtuous and polite Roman ambassador. Anglo-European war is declared.

Fortunately, Queen and Cloten meet premature ends. Cymbeline realises in the nick of time that Britain will be happier Remaining. He closes by inviting his Roman allies to a feast in London, 'Lud's-town':

Publish we this peace
To all our subjects. Set we forward: let
A Roman and a British ensign wave
Friendly together: 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 wash’d, with such a peace.

Self as Caius Lucius, Steve Mastin as Cymbeline
At the annual conference of the Historical Association in Stratford on Avon  last month, I was honoured to be invited to give a keynote lecture on Shakespeare’s later Roman plays. Along with wonderful colleagues working with me to persuadeHistory teachers to introduce Ancient History to their schools/sixth-formcolleges, we performed parts of this play substituting EU flags and Union Jacks for the insignia of Augustus and Cynobelinus Rex. Cynical laughter abounded.

A recent Hollywood movie tries to topicalise Cymbeline by representing Rome and Britannia as two rival motorcycle gangs. Despite the usually superb Ed Harris as Cymbeline, it is dismally bad. But contemporary Britain has stumbled into providing this classic drama with a painful sudden relevance. I wish we could follow Shakespeare, put the 2016 referendum behind us in Act III, and move on to the joyous, cosmopolitan finale.

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