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Student-led Cymbeline a success at Uni High

Cymbeline, a play by William Shakespeare, tells the story of an ancient British king and his family’s tangled tales of innocence and jealousy. The student-directed performances were given earlier this month at University High School in Normal, Illinois, from March 2 to March 4.

“The student-directed show, Cymbeline, was action-packed, complete with fight scenes, poison, and a decapitated head,” wrote Hadley Hagerty in The Clarionette, the student newspaper at the high school.

A decapitated head? Seniors Josh Kuhn and Annellia Pierce picked the cast and directed the Shakespeare tragedy. “The hard part wasn’t deciding who got in; it was determining which student was best for each part,” Ms Pierce was quoted as saying.

As with any Shakespeare play, figuring out the plot amid 16th-century English is the first challenge. What’s going on under the dialect that is technically English but highly poetic and more than 400 years old? The play was first known to be produced in 1611, although the date of authorship is not definitively known.

In this tragedy, which is often classified as a romance or a comedy, Shakespeare’s plot twists and backtracks, even if the words are perfectly understood. Cymbeline is the king of Britain, and his two sons were stolen, like, 20 years before the play opens. Imogen is his daughter and the only known royal-blooded heir to the throne. Unfortunately, she went behind her father’s back and married one of the members of his court, unbeknownst to the king.

That means her children will not have pure royal blood, and so Cymbeline needs to get her marriage cancelled—or worse. Enter Giacomo, or Iachimo, from Italy, who tries to seduce Imogen. Except she will have nothing of it, so he hides in her bedroom and steals a piece of jewelry that will supposedly provide proof back to Imogen’s husband that she was unfaithful. I’m already lost, but students were given deadlines for memorizing their lines so they could focus on the plot behind their words.

Imogen in her bed-chamber, where Iachimo discovers a mole beneath her breast.
(Wilhelm Ferdinand Souchon, ca. 1872, public domain)

The set was described as intimate, with audience members being seated directly on the stage, and consequently “intimidating,” an effect the two student directors were going for: “With an intimate setting, the audience feels more drawn into the show, and actors become part of the set. That’s why we chose to have the seating on stage,” Ms Pierce said.

The play isn’t performed as frequently as most of Shakespeare’s other plays, largely due to the twisted nature of the plot. But actors and the student directors scored big gains from the production. “I learned a lot about trust through this process, trusting that my co-director and my stage manager wanted the same things I did, and trusting that my actors would do what I asked of them,” Ms Pierce was quoted as saying.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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