Elegy.) Innogen (Bethan Cullinane,) daughter of Queen Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) has secretly married childhood sweetheart Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera,) a match that enrages her mother, who promptly banishes her new son-in-law.
In exile in Rome, Posthumus praises his wife's fidelity, leading to an ill-advised
bet that she won't fall for the charms of an Italian visitor. But Iachimo (Oliver
Johnstone) is willing to cheat to win the bet if she turns him down.
This is the play where Shakespeare basically throws every plot device he's ever used
at the stage at once to see what sticks, which means Cymbeline can be
tremendous fun but also needs a certain amount of care if it's going to make any
kind of sense. And Still's stylish production had mixed success on both fronts. A
lot has been made of the fact that for the first time the RSC has gender-flipped the
title role; with it comes a swap the other way for the villain of the piece, the
King's second wife is now the Queen's second husband, the Duke (James Clyde.) Still
says the idea is to get away from the cliché of the wicked stepmother, but the fact
remains that as giving big roles to women goes it's a backfire - a scene-stealing
female baddie role now goes to a man, while a woman gets surely the blandest of
Shakespeare's title roles in return.
The real lead in this play has always been female anyway, of course, and Cullinane
is a credibly ballsy Innogen. There's a nice chemistry with Abeysekera and a darker
spark with Johnstone as the seductive but sexually threatening Iachimo. Certainly
having someone as good-looking as Johnstone in the role lends the plot an
uncomfortable sexiness for the audience: In his creepiest scene where he spies on
Innogen in bed after hiding in a trunk, there's no plot-related reason why he
should be the one with his shirt off but I'm certainly not complaining (his little brown nipples making a play for this blog's end-of-year awards.)
Marcus Griffiths plays Cloten, son of the evil Duke, not so much as a fool as a complete narcissist who
basically can't grasp why Innogen could choose anyone else over his good looks. Theo
Ogundipe as the Second Lord in attendance to him has some fun moments puncturing his
master's ridiculousness in asides. It's fitting that Cloten's comic demise comes at
the hands of the play's least self-conscious characters: After the sterility of the
court, the tree rises up to reveal in its roots the home of Innogen's long-lost
older siblings. Natalie Simpson and James Cooney play them as half-feral, whooping
But a three-and-a-half hour running time will try anyone's patience, and though the
production's heavy on ideas many add little or are actively distracting, like the
soothsayer Philharmonia (Temi Wilkey) wandering the stage throughout, observing the
action. Another programme note says Cymbeline's verse works better heard than
read, so it's ironic Still makes the audience read a number of scenes, translating
the encounters with foreigners and putting the original text on surtitles (sometimes
blocked from view of the side stalls by the actors.) Then, having established Rome
as a cosmopolitan city speaking modern Italian, why does Cymbeline deal with the
Roman officials in classical Latin?
So the production often opts for flourish where it could have done with clarity when
dealing with a bizarre, messy plot*. I liked the setting, which I thought was a good
match to the story, there's some notable performances and the moments of humour are
brought out well in a play of often confused tone. But the production's too
indulgently long and the staging sometimes too busy to really untangle the play's
Cymbeline by William Shakespeare is booking in repertory until the 15th of October
at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon; then from the 31st of October
to the 22nd of December at the Barbican Theatre.
Running time: 3 hours 30 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.
*The subplot with the potion is basically: "It's a health tonic, except it's really
poison, except it's really a Juliet-style fake death draught. Got that? OK we're not
going to mention any of that for the next couple of acts and then it'll suddenly pay
off." Shakespeare even makes fun of his own plotting at the end.