Fri 15 Jul 2011
Bill Iddings as Cymbeline
“It’s good to be the king.”
Until now, I hadn’t been in a sword fight in 20 years. Back then, playing Macduff in Muskegon Community College’s 1991 production of playwright William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, I damn near lost a finger. After dueling with, killing and beheading the murderous title character who seriously had it coming, I sheathed my two-handed broadsword and carried a facsimile of Mackers’ severed noodle back on stage.
What a mess. My hand was smeared so bloody that I hoped onlookers might think the goo was as fake as the decapitation. My blood had splattered on my costume and the boards. Patrons in the first couple rows faced heading home to do laundry, presumably with better luck than Lady Macbeth (“Out, damn spot.”). People had called me a drip before, but this was ridiculous.
“Whoa,” I thought, “that stuff’s supposed to be on the inside.”
Still, we all lived, and further injury is something I’’ve avoided in Cymbeline, a Pigeon Creek Shakespeare Company all-male summer 2011 production nearing the end of its five-city Michigan tour. Playing one of the least-present title characters outside of “Waiting for Godot,” I’m the king of Britain. As a monarch, Cymbeline rules by divine right. He’s used to giving orders and being obeyed, no matter what. When anyone defies or questions such a person, that person tends to explode, which Cymbeline on occasion does.
Cymbeline also comes and goes. When he’s gone, he stays gone, disappearing for what sometimes seems the length of a Bible. Just why Shakespeare called this play “Cymbeline” is anybody’s guess, but why quibble with a dead guy who has shown a degree of staying power.
Among Cymbeline’s other hassles — his daughter (Ben Cole) marrying against his wishes and possibly committing suicide, his second wife (Joel L. Schindlbeck) conspiring with her sniveling son (Ross Currie) to usurp the throne, waging war with Italy — the king gets in a brief skirmish with Romans.
In stage fights choreographed by cast members Ben Cole and Michael Empson, Cymbeline’s swordplay is kept to a minimum. A couple bumps, bellows and clangs and he’s outta there, broadsword put aside till the next performance. Thus far I’ve escaped unscathed, pretty much with my dignity intact. As I told director Bob Jones and the rest of the Cymbeline cast during one rehearsal, “It’s good to be the king.”
Anyway, how does an actor good about playing a king?
Most of us have no personal experience in a job so based in nepotism. I’ve never actually been a regent, though I once recited the Pledge of Allegiance to my sixth-grade classmates. Wearing a crown and the responsibility that goes with it finds me trodding foreign territory.
I am, however, beginning to play a lot of older characters, people who have one foot in the grave and the other on a banana peel.
Will you still need me, will you still feed, when I’m 64? Seems so.
For Pigeon Creek, I’ve previously played a geezer who gets blinded in King Lear; in The Tempest, Prospero, an aging sorcerer whose closing speech is probably his last; and onn hiatus from undiscovered country from whose borne no traveler returns, I haunted Hamlet as a ghost, already dead. Who’s next, Yorick?
With any play preparation, reading the script is a good start; I’m certain I heard that somewhere. Learning your own lines is sort of important, though only if you want to keep working. Memorizing what pertains to your character is huge. Especially helpful is discovering what other characters say about yours.
At one point in Cymbeline, the king’s daughter, Imogen, talks about her father who “like the tyrannous breathing of the North, shakes all our buds from growing.” That’s a line reading if ever I heard one, something to be considered for whose moments when Cymbeline is major ticked off. Kings are not accustomed to be questioned. When they are, all hell can break loose. Cymbeline, though, also has a softer side. He loves his daughter, no matter what she’s done. Some of Shakeseare’s kings do not realize that until it’s too late; witness King Lear and his Cordelia.
I also try to find things I have in common with the characters I play. Cymbeline is not only a father of one child, a daughter. So am I. Cymbeline has been around a while. So have I. Cymbeline feels betrayed by his daughter and later worried that his volatile reaction might have resulted in the worst. I try to imagine how I’d feel in similar circumstances, and apply that to my characterization.
I happen to have a few physical pains that come with age. I’ve had one hip replaced, and pain is now telling me the other is on its way out. I’ve tried to make these aches part of Cymbeline. Face it, omeone who’s ruled a country in warlike times is bound to have an assorted bruises and batterings; those are part of the deal. If we hang around long enough, most actors don’t sashay out of this thing called life with the grace of Fred Astaire. We limp for the exit.
Before we bow out, though, we find our places and live there.
My days of playing romantic leads and swashbucklers are long gone. I’ve buckled my last swash, swashed my last buckle or something like that. But I always keep in mind one of the best pieces of advices I’ve ever been given: Wherever you are, be there.