Pericles is Sam Yates' take on another late romance that I have seen performed before, but so long ago I was essentially coming to it fresh, the ancient Britons vs Romans epic Cymbeline. Princess Innogen (Emily Barber) has married her childhood sweetheart Posthumus (Jonjo O'Neill,) much to the fury of the King: Cymbeline (Joseph Marcell) has himself recently remarried, and promised the new Queen (Pauline McLynn) that his daughter would marry her son Cloten (Calum Callaghan.)
In a rage Cymbeline banishes Posthumus but the marriage remains strong, the young couple exchanging love tokens and promising to stay true. But when he travels to Rome Postuhumus meets Iachimo (Eugene O'Hare,) who makes a bet that he can seduce the princess, and is willing to cheat to make it look as if he won the bet.
Meanwhile back at court the Queen's plot to get her son the kingdom through marriage has been foiled, but she's not above attempting murder to get her way instead. Yates' production does very well in its villains; McLynn obviously relishes her bad-guy role (as well as doubling in a part that sees her suspended from the ceiling for one of the story's most bizarre turns,) while Callaghan's Cloten is a comedy dimwit with a nasty side, well-backed up by a pair of attendants, Christopher Logan's fawning one contrasting with Dharmesh Patel's bitchy one.
Innogen's inevitable disguise as a man makes her unknowingly meet up with her long-lost brothers (Darren Kuppan and Sid Sagar) before they, and a secretly returned Posthumus, all get caught up in the middle of a battle with the Roman forces of Caius Lucius (Paul Rider.) Throw in mistaken identity involving a headless corpse and you've got the tangled elements that are pointed to when anyone asks why the play is so obscure. But I'm still not sure why these are considered so much worse than reanimated statues and death by bear, and there's certainly been many Winter's Tales I've enjoyed far less than this Cymbeline.
The title character is, granted, a surprisingly small role so he remains a bit of a cypher, but there's enough else going on to make up for it. As with Pericles, this production deals with the more outlandish elements by embracing their ridiculousness, especially in the play's conclusion where the characters get pretty much overwhelmed by how many loose plot threads they have to tie up. Its refusal to fit comfortably in a box marked "comedy" or "tragedy" may have kept it obscure for centuries* but in the intimate environment of the Swanamaker at least it's one of those shows I find myself happily grinning throughout - let's see how the RSC get on with it in a much bigger theatre next year.
Cymbeline by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 21st of April at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes including interval.
*this was my Christmas present to my mum this year; when I first suggested it to her she'd never even heard of the play.