Cymbeline is a late Shakespeare play and it has been reimagined by Melly Still for an audience today. It has a great design concept with two towers that turn and spin and change location for us. The costume design is very functional for Britain and Wales and opulent for Italy. Militaristic versus materialistic. Europe versus England. It is an odd collection of worlds clashing and heading to war and the peace and future for the protagonists afterwards.

There is a strange world onstage and there is an even stranger one backstage. And I wanted to share with you what it is like backstage for me personally and for the rest of the cast.

Behind Cymbeline's scenes

Cymbeline, although touted as a tragi-comedy, has a violent streak running through it. All you have to do is walk passed the props cupboard to find a couple of heads sitting in bowls of blood. These heads have been cast from the faces of the cast members who play Cloten and it is unnerving to walk passed the head of Marcus or Eke on any given day. On top of that is what seems like a whole armoury of knives and swords all laid out, neatly labelled with cast’s names. You just know that that armoury means war at some stage.

If you sit backstage all show you will also see cast members walking around and over a bloody headless corpse. This always makes me smile as everyone is so blasé about it, and I am sure at this stage of the run, they don’t even notice.

The stage for Cymbeline with two tall towers, blue lights and smoke
The stage for Cymbeline
Photo by Byron Mondahl © The Artist – Image Licensing

Wigs, blood and chains

There is also a whole army of dressers backstage that help us out immensely. I have one of the quickest changes from my main character Philario to a simple Roman soldier and all I have is a Posthumus soliloquy to do that in. I race to the quick change area and there are three dressers waiting for me. One for clothes, one for getting the scars off my face while another puts my new wig on. I help too, but at the beginning of the run I could barely make it on stage. And now, with some practice, I am often dressed and ready way before I have to go onstage.  But these are the kinds of things the audience never see. It’s our secret world.

During the war sequence in Cymbeline there is intense activity backstage. Wigs department are standing by with what feels like buckets of blood, but in actuality are just small Tupperware. Everyone to some degree gets smeared in blood, and so there is almost a production line feel to it. A long queue can sometimes form if everyone is down at the same time.

Getting smeared in blood and then chained up with a black hood on my head has become my day at the office. This spectacle the audience do see, as I sit with a bunch of captured Roman soldiers at the back of the stage in the final scene. But before we come on stage there is yet again that blood line for extra bloodiness, and then chains wrapped around arms and through legs. We all stand around and chat about things whilst in this get up – what we are going to have for dinner, how was your day off, and then we get roughly pushed on stage and we are captured Roman prisoners awaiting our fate.

Backstage for the others

Then there is the crazy Posthumus, played so brilliantly by Hiran Abeysekera, who, during the war sequence looks like Jason from that horror movie, Friday the 13th Part Two. Dressed in a bloody tutu and a mask of woman stockings and very little else, he is a frightening figure. Backstage a wigs person stands by with latex gloves to smear him bloody half way during the war sequence. Innogen, played so strongly by Bethan Cullinane, spends a great deal of time looking like an urchin that has crawled in from the street. During the war sequence she wears her tutu and a marriage veil and always looks like she is off to her own slightly off the wall marriage.

Innogen and Posthumus on the stage for Cymbeline, with an armchair and a tree stump next to them
Hiran Abeysekera as Posthumus and Bethan Cullinane as Innogen on stage
Photo by Byron Mondahl © The Artist – Image Licensing

Kelly Williams who plays Pisania, Posthumus’ servant, gets herself drenched in water as if she has been out in the rain. She stands in her poncho and gets sprayed from a small water filter all over her body. And Oliver Johnstone, our Iachimo, looks like he has had his limbs sawn off at the end of the show as he is so covered in blood.

This is our world. Because while all this is happening we sit around (if you have a moment), and chat and laugh and get to know each other better. But it’s also the space where our actual lives happen, so real life is allowed to be there in the dark of backstage. You can have a cry, if you need it, or laugh if you need that, catch up with friends all over the world, or just sit silently watching all that happens. We deal with our actual lives while we tell you, the audience, a fictional life. It’s our secret. Audiences will never know what happens there and sometimes what does occur has very little to do with the play we are performing. It’s our lives. And just behind a dark curtain is the world of our story. These worlds colliding make theatre so immediate and scary and wonderful.

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl

Byron Mondahl is an actor who enjoys thinking about and writing about the elusive art of acting. He is from South Africa where he first began acting but has lived in the UK since 2005 when he studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. He has taught English in Taiwan, and also lost six stone and transformed his life for the better. Follow him on Twitter @ByronMondahl

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