We spoke to actress Bethan Cullinane about her role as Innogen in Royal Shakespeare Company’s Cymbeline.
What line from Cymbeline did you look forward to saying the most on opening night?
“A large Gin and tonic, please”.
My second favourite was probably my first line of the second half. It’s the first time I directly speak to the audience. I walk out, disguised as a boy and say “I see a man’s life is a tedious one”. It tends to get a laugh, and after a very emotionally heavy first half it’s a nice refresher. It is a moment of “lighter” relief before it all goes downhill again.
Whether they knew it or not, who was most helpful in helping you find your performance or the character ?
Hiran who plays my husband, Posthumus and Ollie who plays Iachimo are both very good friends of mine. We were in the same year at drama school so I’ve known them both for 8 years (our director Melly had no idea when she cast us). I think being in the rehearsal room with those two meant that I was able to take risks at a very early stage of rehearsal. Had I not known my co-actors so well I might not have felt as brave. We had a short hand and could be very honest with each other about what felt right and what didn’t. And although it’s weird kissing one of your mates, at least it’s not awkward afterwards.
What do you think is the most subtle but significant element of Cymbeline? Whether related to a character, or a theme, setting e.t.c.
I’d say it’s to do with Truth. Roughly 90% of the characters in Cymbeline tell lies or believe them. It’s those few characters that search for the truth that guide the story back to safety. If characters like Pisania, Innogen or the Doctor (who is the unsung hero of the play), were unable to see through others deceit, the play would end as a tragedy. It’s in the final scene when everybody decides to come clean that families and countries are reunited.
What was the first important detail you learned about the story or your character?
It was Innogen’s use of language and the insight it gave me into her imagination. Not only does she talk a lot, but she has a mad, creative way of seeing things too. I think once I embraced that as part of her character I could use the language rather than finding it intimidating.
I would also say that Melly’s decision to change the gender of many of the boldest characters to female was hugely important. It created a world where women could be in charge, and behave however they liked. I was given freedom from the “pious heroine” stereotype and the chance to find a woman with her own real strengths and flaws.
There are overlapping elements between Cymbeline and Hamlet, Othello and Romeo and Juliet. In what way is Cymbeline a unique departure from Shakespeare’s other works?
Well I think the fact that Cymbeline has it all makes it a significant departure from his other works. I like to think of Cymbeline as Shakespeare’s greatest hits. It’s as if he took all of his favourite bits and smashed them together into a completely wacky story. Cymbeline does not share a genre with any of Shakespeare’s other plays. In Hamlet, Polonius makes the audience chuckle when he starts listing all the genres the players could possibly perform. Starting with “tragical-historical” or “pastoral-comical” – he concludes with “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral”. I think it gets a laugh because it seems ridiculous to have so many genres in one play, but fast forward 10 years or so and Shakespeare has done it! If Cymbeline is any genre it’s “tragical-comical-historical-pastoral”- it really has it all.
Bethan Cullinane can be seen in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Cymbeline, on now until 17 December 2016 at the Barbican Theatre, London (UK).
As told to Paul Vaughan for TPJ
Photographer: Jessie Craig