at Collingwood Yards 15 - 24 May 2024


I always attend any play from Robert Johnson and Jessica Johnson. This interview will encourage you to book tickets!

Tell us about your first encounter with the play ‘Cymbeline’. Do you remember your initial response?

A: I first read Cymbeline on an overnight train to Sydney when I was working with Opera Australia. It suited the mood of the play – dark, moonlit, I was on a journey trapped in an uncomfortable in between place, yet the romance of overnight train travel was still at least somewhat in play. And that’s what the play is – it’s romantic and adventurous, but also dark and uncomfortable as lovers and kingdoms straddle these strange night time in-between places. I was struck by the ambition of it all – Princess Imogen secretly marries her lower class lover Posthumus, is discovered, he banished, she imprisoned. In Italy Postumus encounters Iachimo, a nobleman who wagers he can’t get Imogen to sleep with him. Distraught Posthumus accepts, and Iachimo travels to Britain. So two acts in it feels like a somewhat perverse comedy, but then things go off the rails pretty quickly. Imogen rebuffs Iachimo, who decides to lie to Posthumus anyway. Posthumus, believing his wife has been unfaithful, lays a plan to have her murdered. Throw in an evil queen, a raging war between Britain and Rome, a pair of long lost siblings, a distraught flight to Wales and the god Jupiter himself coming down to bless all the players and you’ll have a taste of the heady feast of life that is the play Cymbeline. I was somewhat overpowered by that first encounter, and it’s a real joy I get to share it with Melbourne this month.

Q: What inspired you to direct this play?

A: Three things. The first was the chance to work with Elisa Armstrong again. She’s playing the title role (Princess Imogen, not King Cymbeline) and was the one who initially told me to direct it. She’s a fantastic actor, and Imogen is one of those great Shakespearean roles – she’s witty, she’s clever, she’s brave, yet still somewhat naive and ready to throw herself head over heels in love. Elisa does a wonderful job.

The other two more directly spring from the play itself. When it was first staged (the first recorded production is 1611, but it might have been written a year or two later) it was performed in Blackfriars Theatre. Blackfriars had the unique position of being an indoor theatre, which meant it was lit entirely by candles. It was a smaller theatre than the Globe, and audience sat (mostly) all around the stage. So it was an incredibly intimate and romantic way of experiencing theatre. A play like Cymbeline – a romance/tragedy/adventure/road-trip/war play (Polonius would have a field day describing it) would shine in such a setting and I wanted to recreate that experience for Melbourne.

It is also a beautiful play about forgiveness. When writing, Shakespeare – a man who had left his wife and children in Stratford-upon-Avon for years so he could have a career in the theatre – was most likely beginning to consider his retirement. His mother had just passed away, and we see in his writing both a move away from comedy and tragedy as separate genres and the beginning of working with younger writers. Shakespeare (I think) was thinking about home more and more, and having to face a wife that he had somewhat neglected for at least twenty years. He sent money back and visited, but his life revolved around London and there is some anecdotal evidence that he was unfaithful. So he had to think about what it meant to fully commit to family, and what was required of him. So he writes this beautiful play in which a man treats his wife disgustingly and through her grace becomes a better person. Everyone in Imogen’s circle is elevated towards the sacred. It’s such a gorgeous play because it’s Shakespeare’s prayer to love – the ultimate redemptive force. The final scene of the play (no spoilers here) is one of the closest I’ve felt to God whilst reading/watching a piece of theatre. It’s stunning, humanist work, and it begs to be both staged and seen.

Q: The last time you sat down with TAGG you working on the relentlessly depressing Little Eyolf. How is this project different?

A: It’s more hopeful! Though I do think Little Eyolf was hopeful, but Ibsen encourages you to move towards the light by showing you just how deep and dark the abyss of every day life can be. This play, though labelled a tragedy in the folio, is more accurately called a romance. There’s light and shade aplenty, and it oscillates very carefully between tragedy and comedy. It’s funny, it’s engaging and uplifting, but it also has some truly harrowing moments. For me, more than any other play of his, I can see Shakespeare as the champion of humanism at work here – there’s a real celebration of the full experience of life. So, expect quite a bit more laughs and despite some rather dark scenes (and we won’t be pulling any punches) a rather uplifting experience. It should leave the soul very full after watching.

It’s also a lot more connected to the audience. Both the Globe and Blackfriars were thrust stages (though both built quite differently). This meant that actors were used to playing to audience members on three sides of the theatre (sometimes more). So the way the show is delivered is very outward. The audience are confidants, allies and co-conspirators in the play. No audience participation in a way that might seem a bit scary, but a real acknowledgment and honouring of that most sacred thing in the theatre – the connection between actor and audience. It’s one of the many things that I think makes this production so special – it’s so alive to the audience, the actors are always in dialogue with them – winking, teasing, berating and flirting with them – I think it will be an incredibly entertaining experience.

Q: You seem to have a fascination with tragedy. What attracts you to the work that Burning House chooses to do?

A: This is actually the first play I’ve directed in a long time that doesn’t end in a suicide, assisted suicide or the implication that a suicide is coming. I guess I’m mellowing out. I think what I’ve learnt from doing those sorts of plays though is what a sacred experience theatre can be – that through tragedy I can take the audience right to the edge of the human spirit and in that place show them the full depth and richness of their humanity and empathy. I guess you could say tears seemed like the quickest route to God before. But I feel this changing in me, and looking at Cymbeline and the next four or five shows we have lined up there’s more of a focus on plays that can fully intertwine tragedy and comedy. We’re always obsessed with plays that operate in extremis – when I go to the theatre I want to cry and sob and fall in love and walk out with my understanding of myself thoroughly challenged. And tragedy has always been the answer to that for me. And when I look at the plays we’re going to do over the next two or three years that’s still in there – audiences should still expect very challenging work, but things are getting a bit brighter too. I’m looking forward to seeing how we can balance those two things.

Q: If you could invite anyone to see Cymbeline, who would it be?

It’s terribly hackneyed to say this, but Will Shakespeare would be at the top of the list, shortly followed by the rest of the King’s Men. The team and I have tried really hard to make this an experience that would match what it would have been like to see this for the first time. It’s in modern dress of course, but the sense of romance, the connection with the audience, the commitment to grace and humanism, that has been uppermost in my mind whilst directing the play. There are definitely parts where I can feel him nodding his head, and I’d really like to see what he thinks. This isn’t to say it’s a museum piece – the play is an attempt to translate the experience of that first magical performance into a contemporary setting. I think we’ve achieved that too, and I think audiences won’t have seen a lot of Shakespeare like this – there’s been a real commitment to language and honouring the maturity and complexity of the play, whilst doing a lot of work to make it breathe and feel contemporary, yet always in the spirit of what I believe Shakespeare and the King’s Men were trying to achieve. I think Will would give us the seal of approval, and I’m confident audiences will as well.

Producers: Elisa Armstrong, Robert Johnson, Jessica Johnson

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Robert Johnson

Production Design: Samantha Hastings

Lighting Design: Lani Mason and Patrick Spencer

Sound Design: Jackie Van Lierop

Stage Management: Lani Mason

Cast: Elisa Armstrong, Paul Armstrong, Indiana Butingan, Alys Daroy, Kaitlin Devine, Alec Gilbert, Luke Hill-Smith, Shane Palmer, Amelie Pimlott, Alexander Tomisich, Fletcher von Arx

Performed @ CollArts Studio, Collingwood Yards, 35 Johnston St, Collingwood

Adults: $38, Concession $28, Preview $28


Wed 15th -Sat 18th May 7:00pm
Tues 21st – Sat 25th May 7:00pm

Meredith Fuller OAM

psychologist | author | creative collaborator

M: +61 400 175 524

website & YouTube channel

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