YORK Shakespeare Project will present the rarely-performed Cymbeline, King Of Britain, in a heritage location normally shut to the public, with live music, period dress and duelling rapiers from Friday this week.

"In a re-imagining of what Shakespeare’s original company might have looked like on tour, this production will be presented at York’s Merchant Taylors’ Hall," says director Ben Prusiner.

"For this production, I wanted the community cast and audience to experience the play alongside York’s rich history. We know that in Shakespeare’s time the London companies would tour to York, and while there aren’t specific records about Cymbeline, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to explore what a touring production might have looked like."

In Cymbeline, Princess Imogen (played by Bronte Hobson) has been imprisoned by her own father, King Cymbeline (Elizabeth Elsworth). Under house arrest, she must survive a hostile courtship, a scheming Queen (Rosy Rowley), and an attempt on her life. Far away in Rome, her banished husband, Posthumus Leonatus (Emma Scott), is surrounded by strangers intent on breaking their love. Meanwhile, armies muster as Britain looks to free itself from the Roman Empire. Can love survive distance, jealousy and war?

"Cymbeline has always been among my favourite Shakespeare plays, with exquisite poetry and thrillingly crafted dramatic scenes," says Ben. "Shakespeare was experimenting with the tragi-comic genre, as he had in The Winter's Tale, and it's just that the genre fell out of fashion for hundreds of years.

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Carrie Morrison as Prince Cloten in Cymbeline. Picture: John Saunders

"People who know the play well love it, but it's unfairly maligned, and I think a lot of that comes from past theatrical tastes, some of it from centuries ago, where the plot was found to be ridiculous. And yes it is somewhat ridiculous, but that does not stop enjoyment of the play or prevent it from being taken seriously or profoundly."

Under Ben's direction, after 33 YSP productions, the York company will be doing its first-ever staging in full Renaissance costume "with a Roman edge for some characters".

"Add to this that we're performing in the beautiful Merchant Taylors’ Hall – not to be confused with the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall – and we're excited to explore together how this ‘original setting’ shapes our perception of the play’s characters and plot twists," he says.

"Cymbeline is very rich with music and sword play, and from day one of rehearsal we've been crafting intricate fight sequences involving almost a dozen people, which is the way to avoid it being clunky or awkward, plus we've doing songs ranging from gorgeous madrigals to bawdy ballads," says Ben.

As can be noted from the casting mentioned above, the director believes the "Renaissance aesthetic offers a frame to look at gender roles". "Shakespeare’s original company would have been all-male, with boys and men playing all the parts; we'll be presenting the play with a mixed-gender company playing male and female roles, exploring how people defined genders in Shakespeare’s time and how we view them today."

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Elizabeth Elsworth as King Cymbeline and Rosy Rowley as The Queen in Cymbeline. Picture: John Saunders

Rosy Rowley, Daniel Thrace and Tracey Rea all play both male and female roles. "We're not changing any of the characters to be women or men; all the characters retain their original gender, regardless of who's playing them, but we're exploring gender characteristics in a play that's hugely about gender, machismo and jealousy, and is full of mistaken identities of many kinds!"

Not only has a fifth performance of Cymbeline been added for Sunday night, but the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of York and the Sheriff and Sheriff’s Consort will be in attendance. “This harkens back to Shakespeare’s day, when touring companies would be required to perform before the Lord Mayor in the guild hall in order to obtain permission to continue performances throughout the city,” says Ben. “We are thrilled to be honouring this tradition at Sunday’s 7pm show.”

Cymbeline will be Ben's last project in York –"for the time being at least," he says – before he moves to Bristol in April to begin a Masters in Drama Directing at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. "I hope to return, but in the meantime plan on making it a production to remember.

"Cymbeline is a thrilling, funny, and poignant play that gets performed all too rarely in its full glory. We can’t wait to share it with you.”

York Shakespeare Project presents Cymbeline at Merchant Taylors’ Hall, Aldwark, York, Friday, 7pm; Saturday and Sunday, 2pm and 7pm. Box office: 01904 623558 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk

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New post: York theatre director Ben Prusiner standing at the Rose archaeological site in London


BEN Prusiner, director of this week’s York Shakespeare Project production of Cymbeline, is to direct the 30th Anniversary Festival at The Rose Bankside in London.

“I’ve been doing some behind-the scenes-work for The Rose Bankside (Rose Playhouse) and have now officially been hired to direct the anniversary festival,” says Ben, an ex-pat New York academic and director, who lives in York.

“This year marks the 30th anniversary of the discovery of the Rose Playhouse archaeological site, the site of Shakespeare’s early plays, including the premiere of Titus Andronicus, and the artistic home of numerous playwrights, Christopher Marlowe, Ben Jonson and countless other heroes of mine.

“The site was discovered by a construction crew intent on building a new office block, and subsequently this priceless piece of theatre history was scheduled to be bulldozed. Thanks to large-scale protests by citizens and actors, including Judi Dench, Ralph Fiennes and the late Peggy Ashcroft and Laurence Olivier, the site was saved and the offices were built around the theatre’s remains, leaving them intact. To this day, the site remains under a preservative layer of water, waiting for the final stage of excavation.”

Ben is working alongside the Rose general manager and board of trustees to put on a series of events commemorating this history and looking towards the Rose’s future as a fully excavated site, museum, and performance space.

"These events will include a celebrity fundraising gala and an original piece of verbatim theatre about the fight to save the Rose," he says. "Details will be announced soon, but the space already has a series of visiting productions coming up in April and May. To learn more, visit roseplayhouse.org.uk."

Ben's new role at the Rose will coincide with his move from York in April to begin a Masters in Drama Directing at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. "The Rose post will be part time and only through May, so there'll be just a bit of overlap," he says.