Bethan plays Innogen in Cymbeline. Traditionally seen as wholesome, perhaps pious, Bethan finds Innogen petulant, headstrong and flawed, certainly naïve in her acceptance of Iachimo’s excuses. And with a director like Melly Still who challenges the traditional, she has had room for creativity yet always letting her ideas arise from the language of the text.

Shakespeare Aloud

Bethan’s first experience of Shakespeare’s language was of speaking the text aloud rather than analysing it when she did Macbeth in Year 9. She really enjoyed A-Level Shakespeare and with excellent English and Drama teachers she was spoilt for choice. Should she do English at university or opt for drama school?

It was to be drama. At RADA she was taught about verse speaking, though she says that it is only when you work professionally that you make discoveries about it. Two months after leaving she was playing Ophelia. This was not a role that she had ever imagined herself playing, having an image of an auburn-haired willowy girl, but the casting director found his Ophelia in Bethan and she was noticed enough to find herself at Shakespeare's Globe cast as the Fool and Cordelia in King Lear.

Regan and Innogen

She recently gave us a very assured performance of Regan in the public understudy performance of King Lear. She thoroughly understood Regan’s position as second child - neither the first nor the favourite - and she was able to play the truth of that spite arising from her situation. And when Gloucester turns on her, saying he would not see her cruel nails pluck out Lear’s eyes but vows to see vengeance overtake her, she is empowered to visit vengeance on him there and then. This role she can play in a very different key from her Innogen.

Bethan Cullinane as Innogen, with a metal bracelet on her arm and hugging a blue striped jacket to her chest
Bethan as Innogen in Cymbeline
Photo by Ellie Kurttz © RSC Browse and license our images

Playing dead

Bethan knows King Lear. In fact she tells me she has done 270 performances of it before being cast in Gregory Doran's production. As Cordelia and the Fool she toured the UK, Europe, Asia and the USA, experiencing many different conditions and audiences. But there were so many chances when, playing the dead Cordelia in Lear’s arms, she might cough or sneeze!  Well, she admits, it did happen. And as she stifled the cough, Joseph Marcell cradled her more closely to his chest. In Austria, after severe floods, the air was black with mosquitos. Marcell slapped her face, apparently attempting to bring her to life, but actually to kill the biting mosquitos!

Audience at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Bethan says that her Globe experience taught her so much. The RST was a space she could adapt to easily. She still uses Giles Block’s (Globe text advisor) approach to verse speaking, although with experience she feels more confident to move away from it. And, above all, her sense of audience awareness was first developed there.

We talk about that very difficult moment in Cymbeline when Innogen apparently finds Posthumus dead. She builds up the horror of the moment until she reaches the line: “Where is thy head?” The audience can react so differently, she says. Some gasp in horror but more often they laugh. What do you do? Allow the laugh without playing the laugh, Bethan says. You play from your point of view and you have to retrieve the situation by asking the audience to see it your way.

She leaves to spend three hours in the world of King Lear for a matinee before her preparation to perform in Cymbeline tonight. She has to give herself two hours to make that move physically and mentally.

Viv Graver

Viv Graver is a retired teacher, who taught Shakespeare for more than 30 years in the north of England. Her present interest is introducing Shakespeare into primary schools. Viv's blog is a series of interviews with RSC cast and creatives about their path to Shakespeare and how they first came to it, at school and elsewhere.

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