A scene from Cymbeline
(© Keith Pattison)
A scene from Cymbeline
(© Keith Pattison)
Hamlet's prayer to the actors about speaking speeches trippingly on the tongue is frequently taken -- probably correctly -- as William Shakespeare's own suggestions on how he wants the dialogue in all his plays presented. If that's the case, director Declan Donnellan and his Cheek by Jowl players have misread the Bard when deciding how to approach Cymbeline, now in a limited run at BAM.

Apparently, they think Hamlet said, "Speak the speech clippingly on the tongue." So they deliver the lines of this late Shakespeare opus with such an increasingly irritating staccato rhythm that just about any semblance of real people responding to real (if highly-melodramatic) circumstances is drained from the action.

For the most part, what's left to view throughout the modern-dress interpretation of the work is a collection of self-impressed thespians flaunting their presumed talents but actually rendering Shakespeare's intricate poetry and prose difficult, if not impossible, to follow. The Cheek by Jowl troupe, who can usually be relied on for first-rate performances, instead sound like a platoon of over-enunciating town criers.

This is particularly problematic with a play that requires a good deal of finesse in order to have any effect whatsoever. A patchwork of development lifted from earlier works, it spins the tale of hot-headed King Cymbeline (David Collings), who alienates daughter Imogen (Jodie McNee) because she married the man she loves, Posthumus (Tom Hiddleston), and hasn't saved herself for Cloten (also Hiddleston), the son by a former marriage of the current Queen (Gwendoline Christie).

So Imogen heads to the countryside, where she encounters supposed savages Belarius (Ryan Ellsworth) and young Guideruis (John MacMillan) and Arviragus (Daniel Percival), who are actually her long-lost brothers. The banished Posthumus -- named because at one juncture he's presumed dead but returns among the living -- heads to the war-mongering Roman camp where he inadvertently incites malevolent Iachimo (Guy Flanagan) to test Imogen's fidelity, an assault Posthumus initially believes is successful. Since Shakespeare was in the conciliatory last phase of his writing, all eventually comes right through several contrite declarations and without too much on-stage bloodletting.

If Cymbeline is going to carry contemporary audiences along, it's crucial that the focal characters are sympathetic. Imogen certainly needs to be likable and her plight meaningful; but it doesn't hurt if the King -- one of Shakespeare's numerous obtuse monarchs -- also shows some redeeming qualities. Neither actor succeeds to any noticeable degree. McNee has the spoiled air of a finishing-school girl annoyed that the Lexus she's received on her 17th birthday isn't a convertible, while Collings is apoplectic from first to last. How this aging infant prevails against the Romans is a mystery.

Of the central trio, only Hiddleston is intermittently appealing. He's even admirable when once or twice he morphs into Cloten right before the audience's eyes. More than others in the cast, Hiddleston even bucks the chop-chop delivery trend -- except that he often forgets to project. The statuesque Christie, looking fashion-runway chic in set and costume designer Nick Ormerod's sophisticated ball gown, also has projection problems, particularly when humorously making baby talk of her comments to the king.

Yes, there is one place where the clipped-utterance tactic works: when Cloten and two back-up players step before the sumptuous blue draperies designer Ormerod now and again lowers to perform the "Hark, hark, the lark." They come off as if they're three of The Four Tops.

Even though Donnellan inserts some smart staging -- including clever cross-cutting within scenes and even dropping balloons to enliven the chicanery -- this blared Cymbeline treatment is akin to a frayed-nerves kindergarten teacher talking with deliberation to an inattentive class. Maybe it should have been renamed Cymbaline.