ARTE Documentary on Cheek by Jowl’s Cymbeline PART2

A documentary by ZADIG productions made for French TV station ARTE. The documentary features interviews with Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod and members of the Cymbeline cast including Gwendoline Christie, Ryan Ellsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Jodie McNee

Tom Hiddleston talking about his characters, singing and dancing like he’s in a boy band. This stuff is golden!

Part 1


ARTE Documentary on Cheek by Jowl’s Cymbeline PART1

A documentary by ZADIG productions made for French TV station ARTE. The documentary features interviews with Declan Donnellan, Nick Ormerod and members of the Cymbeline cast including Gwendoline Christie, Ryan Ellsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Jodie McNee

The magic of Shakespeare, and Baby Hiddles in his theatre days.

Part 2

A beautiful lantern slide depicting the larva and adult Wood Wasp. 

This slide is part of a collection used by Professor F. J. Cole, the first Professor of Zoology at the University of Reading. The artist, Georgiana Elizabeth Ormerod (1825-1896), studied painting under William Hunt alongside her sister Eleanor Anne Ormerod (1828-1901), who was a renowned economic entomologist, a consultant to the Royal Agricultural Society and the first woman in Britain to receive an honorary degree. Georgiana illustrated her sister’s work and sometimes accompanied her to meetings with The Etomological Society. 

'Tom Hiddleston sang a boyband number': Nick Ormerod on Cymbeline
Designer Nick Ormerod on how he brought Shakespeare’s ancient Britons into the 20th century for Cheek by Jowl’s production of Cymbeline
By Andrew Dickson

Designing for Cheek by Jowl is very pragmatic. We’re a touring company, so our productions have to be mobile: they could be in London one week, Spain the next, St Petersburg after that. Heavy scenery is a no-no; often it’s shipped by road or air. Those realities are always in your mind. But then there’s something mobile about Shakespeare’s plays. There’s an absolute requirement for fluidity; one scene segues immediately into the next. As a designer, I want to make the actors as free as possible to move. Movement and flow keep the play alive.

My co-director Declan Donnellan and I always do a lot of dramaturgical work on the text: what does it suggest, what possibilities does it offer? I’m always keen to get a sense of what the actors think. But I need to move pretty quickly to get a set designed and costumes made. In general, our aim is to make Shakespeare feel as contemporary as possible, so there needs to be a pretty strong reason for us to move a play out of a modern context. That doesn’t mean we can’t – when we staged Much Ado About Nothing in 1998, we set it before the first world war, with Edwardian costumes and military uniforms. But that was something that came out of rehearsals: a lot of the language of the play just seemed to make sense in that setting. We’re constantly aware that these are old texts. Our job is to make them come alive for a modern audience.

Cymbeline is located in ancient Britain at the time of the Roman empire, and you can get very hung up on that idea – I dread to think what “authentic” costume would look like, if you interpreted it literally. Blokes wearing woad and/or Roman breastplates? When we staged it in 2007, we didn’t want that at all. I hate the idea of the audience saying, “Oh, you’ve set it exactly in 1914” or whatever. So we went for a sort of transitional 20th-century look: a bit 1950s, a touch nostalgic, because there are all these references in the text to time and time passing. In the opening scenes, Jodie McNee wore a red ballgown as Imogen; Tom Hiddleston, who played her husband Posthumus and her half-brother Cloten, had a dark suit and a raincoat. Very simple. There was very little in terms of set – some blue drapes, I think, which floated above the stage. A hint of Buckingham Palace for King Cymbeline’s court.

Tom was very keen to wear glasses as Posthumus; he had a slightly eager, intense quality. But as Cloten, who idiotically attempts to woo Imogen, he was pure clown. There’s a scene where he stands beneath Imogen’s window and sings “Hark, hark, the lark”, which we turned into a boyband number, with Tom singing and dancing. I forget whose idea it was, but it was brilliantly cringeworthy. He really went for it.

Declan and I have recently done Measure for Measure with our Russian company, and it felt as if there were so many references to contemporary Russia in the text – corrupt city governments, authoritarian power, a resurgent church. But I don’t think you can make a rule about how to design one of Shakespeare’s plays: you can come up with good reasons for doing anything. I can easily imagine the play set in the Victorian era, or the 17th century. It’s about puritanism, and that doesn’t date. When we did it the time before, with English actors in the mid-90s, John Major was talking about “back to basics”. Shakespeare is writing about human beings, and about us.

In a way, that’s the point. Shakespeare wasn’t historicising reality – he was setting his plays in certain periods or locations, but using that as a way to write about his own world. Costumes and clothes were expensive in the Elizabethan period, so there must have been a lot of using what they had available, making-do. People are sometimes surprised by how pragmatic theatre is. They imagine the director and designer have absolute authority over what you see, that everything is planned. But there are thousands of tiny decisions, many of which you don’t really control. You’re collaborating with actors, and a text. It’s as simple as that.