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Crafting hope during COVID lockdown

By Cymbeline Anthropocene on Nov 19, 2020 at 07:09 PM in Cymbeline and the World
Crafting hope during COVID lockdown

Following Cymbeline in the Anthropocene’s first planning meeting last February in Santa Barbara, California, our collaborators created a wordcloud of major terms that emerged from its conversations and workshops. After mulling in our collaborator’s minds and Twitter archives during these months of global pandemic lockdowns, the wordcloud has now found physical form in a embroidered rendition, hand-crafted by our project researcher and website manager, Rebecca Salazar. The embroidery, pictured above, represents all the terms in our wordcloud in shades of green and grey as they wheel around a central pink flower, with all elements joined by black vines over a black background.

The leading idea that emerged from our discussions was “finding the pink flower in the charred forest.” It alluded to the climate-change-intensified bushfires then taking place during Australia’s “black summer” of 2019-20, in which up to a million animals and 33 people died, but during which precious forms of life managed to survive. The image captured our hopes of communicating the urgency of climate-change and other forms of environmental destruction through eye-catching and contemporizing adaptations of Cymbeline

Crafting hope during COVID lockdown

Another leading idea was “forgiving dickheads (we too).” As the results of the American election have reminded us, there are many people–and not just in the US but elsewhere--who remain indifferent to the planet’s environmental future. They feel their personal interests are at odds with decarbonizing and detoxifying the planet, or sharing it equitably with other animals. Eco-performances of Cymbeline need to reach these people. They must discover overlapping values and interests and find common ground where possible. And they mustn’t just preach to the choir. Collective responsibility extends--in lesser degrees, one hopes--to environmental progressives, whose everyday Western lifestyles are neither pure nor without compromises.

This overlaps with the question of "sustainable scenography," in which conventional material practices of theatrical production and spectatorship, must be interrogated. This, of course, is a matter which COVID19 is also compelling us to re-evaluate. 

Crafting hope during COVID lockdown

Our pop-up stagings also concluded that “weirdness & queerness bind us.” Cymbeline scripts many moments in which bizarre and extravagant things happen: e.g. when Innogen hugs the decapitated body of Cloten dressed as her husband; when four British soldiers rout a Roman militia; when Shakespeare mashes up his previous story-telling to the point of self-parody, especially in the final scene of cascading revelations.   

As Stephen Guy-Bray observes in Shakespeare and Queer Representation, such excesses draw attention to the way Cymbeline queers its straight narratives. They also surprise or estrange audience expectations of theatrical and psychological naturalism which conventionally reflect what it means to be human and “normal.” Instead they remind us that people are complexly interconnected with other living beings and things in ways that have been traditionally unexamined or undervalued, and need to be thought afresh. Doing so creates possibilities for removing the human blinkers of the Anthropocene. In that sense, the weirdness and queerness of Cymbeline has ecological purpose.

“Humour/hope in collapse” is another of Cymbeline’s ecological paradoxes. As in other Shakespeare plays such as Titus Andronicus, moments of graphic violence in Cymbeline can produce nervous laughter in audiences. Such moments betray a seemingly awkward but potentially productive toggling between distancing and empathy.

Take for example Guiderius’s beheading of Cloten. Guiderius justifies decapitating him in self-defence, and he excuses himself because of Cloten’s intolerable arrogance. He then makes a joke of his violence, proposing to chuck the head into a nearby creek to let it wash down to the sea to “tell the fishes he’s the Queen’s son” (and implicitly give them a royal feast; 4.2153-54). 

The moment is funny, on one level, because we feel Cloten gets what he deserves. After all, he reeks. But on another level, what we see is Guiderius showing off a bloody trophy of his royal manhood. Belarius points out that killing Cloten is not only illegal and dangerous but senseless. And he’s right, as we know from today’s news: beheadings are hardly laughing matters.

Our smiles at such moments in Cymbeline expose veering impulses of vengeance and forgiveness, death and renewal. When the Romans go to work in battle, “lolling [their] tongues with slaughter’ing” the British (5.3.8), is the image of wagging tongues beastly,  comical, or some kind of evolutionary atavism? The answer matters less, perhaps, than the play’s wider message that these impulses may pivot in destructive or hopeful directions according to collective social and political decisions. Episodes of violence and war in Cymbeline suggest that growth can emerge from seemingly ruined places and lives. Dark humour is a theatrical means of processing these transitions.

Crafting hope during COVID lockdown

The COVID lockdowns which began immediately after the February meeting are now restarting in many places, keeping indoor theatres shuttered. But many companies, including our collaborators’, have been finding creative ways of performing for audiences in alternative media, and our website has been featuring some of these: filmic adaptations like Ricardo II or Oguta Island; live Zoom performances like Gretchen Minton's Timon of Anaconda; interactive productions like The Willow Globe's Sharing Cymbeline project; or collaborative zines like the Cymbel(z)ine, which engage with Shakespeare's work in a written and visual format. Rebecca’s embroidery is another example of such adaptive measures of thinking through Shakespeare during the pandemic, and we proudly add her handiwork to our ongoing conversations