Royal Shakespeare Company
Cymbeline isn’t very often done. It’s easy to understand why. There are several plots: the Roman colonisation of England and the conflict between England and Rome, the love story between Cymbeline’s daughter (here called Innogen) and the more lowly born Posthumus, the theft of Cymbeline’s two other children when they were in infancy and what happens to them, the Machiavellian Italian Iachimo’s attempt to besmirch Innogen’s virtue and make Posthumus insanely jealous. These eventually come together after a number of unlikelihoods to create a problematic happy ending.
Set in the capital, Wales and Italy, the action moves between the three locations. Weird things happen throughout. When Posthumus arrives in Rome he finds Italians, a Spaniard, a Frenchman and a Dutchman. Innogen runs away to Wales and without difficulty finds her siblings, even though she’s not looking for them. Cloten gets his head cut off. Jupiter descends in a chariot.
It’s long and unlikely so you have to do something with it. Director Melly Still certainly does lots with it. She draws parallels between Britain refusing but eventually agreeing to pay tribute to Rome with the Brexit debate. Should we or should we not pay tribute to the EU? In previous productions I have seen Posthumus as tall and strong and Cloten small and dumpy. Here Cloten is big and tall, Posthumus small, slim and a bit wimpy. Cymbeline is male and his wife the wicked witch. Here Cymbeline is female and her husband (the Duke) the wicked one. The two stolen boys are both male. Here Arviragus is male and Guideria female. Posthumus’s servant is male. Here Pisania is female. Shakespeare writes all his play in English but in this production when they are in Rome they speak Latin as well as Italian and there are smatterings of other languages, too. When Posthumus arrives in Rome he goes to a disco playing techno and ambient techno. The costumes are suggestive, related to character and situation rather than to a particular time period. As in Doctor Faustus the music is modern and brilliant, especially in the wonderful setting of ‘Hark, hark the lark’ and ‘Fear no more’. Jupiter is Posthumus. It is he who descends in a chariot, he who plays with paper cutouts of people in a series of set pieces about moral dilemmas. Posthumus dons Innogen’s dress in another dream sequence. The battles are completely non-realistic with a wonderful slo mo sequence. Asides are denoted by the dimming of lights and a spot. Early on there is an extraordinary moment of shag interruptus with Innogen wearing a kind of Miss Havisham tutu. The play is also often very funny, though never played for laughs.
I wouldn’t and probably couldn’t have thought of doing any of these things. That’s why I loved it. It made me think about Shakespeare’s play throughout. For me there was never a dull or idle moment.
It’s an inspired idea to make Cymbeline female; the theft of a mother’s children hangs over her throughout. The cliché of the wicked queen turns into a more powerful examination of the envy and rage which can kick in when it is one’s wife who has all the power. It is his unconscious which leads Posthumus eventually to self-realisation. Innogen can only find herself by running away from court and being in touch with wild but consoling nature. The play’s denouement heightens the growth of the play’s young people, but it also points to the difficulties which lie ahead as Arviragus and Guideria learn who they are, as Posthumus and Innogen have to learn to know each other again and Cymbeline has to face her situation of being a rather ineffectual capitulating queen and now a widow too.
When you have seen the same actors in two different productions over a short period of time it’s inevitable that you link them together in your head. Melly Still gains a good deal by casting James Cooney as Arviragus and Natalie Simpson as Guideria. They were brilliant I thought as Rosencrantz and Guildernstern. Here they are brilliant together again, the chemistry of the first roles feeding into these very different ones. But the performances are so different that I still find it almost impossible to grasp that they are the same actors. Their scenes with the wonderful Graham Turner as Belarius are powerfully moving. I loved watching Horan Abesekera again, too. Both as Horatio and Posthumus his vocal and physical skills are unflashy but consummate. In each part he interprets the character differently from what I expected and in each he is convincing. Gillian Bevan as Cymbeline brings out the character’s changeability and even manages to accrue some audience sympathy or at least empathy at the end – no mean feat. Marcus Griffiths avoids playing Cloten as a stereotypical stage villain and forces you to think about what he is up to. Similarly, Oliver Johnstone is a modern embodiment of evil in Iachimo, not a stereotype. The more you think about what he is up to the worse it is, but you can begin to understand him a bit. James Clyde’s Duke is nasty, but he has a certain charm. Spooky.
I loved Dave Price’s music. It creates a modern/ancient/timeless backdrop to the action. And Anna Fleischle’s design facilitates quick transitions from location to location while offering the audience some powerful images which complement the action. This is a world where growth is difficult. The people gathering herbs have to dig these tiny signs of life from small cracks and with considerable difficult. Thus pieces of added action create metaphors for the ideas underpinning the play, the concrete and literal becoming metaphorical and sometimes symbolic.
In the centre of the stage is a huge tree trunk. There was life once but the tree is limbless. It is also encased in a cubed frame. One of the delights of this conceptualised production was to consider what happened on the cube; when characters sat and stood on it; what was signified each time this happened; how that space becomes a mental space which many characters unknowingly share. It is a wonderful unifying idea.
This Cymbeline and the concurrently playing Hamlet are productions which I shall never forget. It was a privilege to see them. Don’t miss out. Come and see both of them if you can and enjoy a stay at Moss Cottage as you relish the RSC’s outstanding season.