Saturday 6 May 2023

Theatre review: Cymbeline (RSC / RST)

What better way to mark the Coronation than with Shakespeare's late romance about a forgettable king with a dead first wife and a panto villain second wife? The last time the RSC staged Cymbeline they gender-swapped the King and Queen to avoid the cliché of the wicked stepmother. For Gregory Doran's final show as Artistic Director things stay very much as written, because that particular cliché - and the play's extended collection of weird bad guys in general - feed into the production's feel of a dark fairytale. Peter De Jersey plays Cymbeline, the King of Britain who gets all but written out of his own play when he starts to fall ill, suspiciously soon after the new Queen starts brewing him a mysterious health tonic. Alexandra Gilbreath goes full Cruella as the Queen who also advises that the princess Imogen marry her son Cloten (Conor Glean,) so he can inherit the throne should the King suddenly die for some reason.

But Imogen (Amber James) has a mind of her own and has already eloped with Posthumus (Ed Sayer.) The King is goaded into anger, and the newlyweds get separated.

And things certainly don't get much more coherent from here on in, as a Greatest Hits of plot points catapult Imogen around the country, including multiple highly recognisable birthmarks, poisons that only kill you temporarily, a decapitated body, a sinister Italian (Jamie Wilkes) hiding in a trunk, and a full-on war with the Roman Empire that essentially ends with the winning side surrendering to the losers. There's also the feral and mysterious race known as THE WELSH, as personified by Belarius (Christian Patterson) and his sons (Scott Gutteridge and Daf Thomas,) AKA Cymbeline's exiled former lord and the two princes he abducted as babies. Maybe the fact that Stephen Brimson Lewis' designs, dominated by a full moon, lean heavily into that fairytale aesthetic isn't that surprising.

I can't say I'll be too sorry to see Doran go, and the fact that this version of a particularly obscure play almost hits the three-and-a-half hour mark may be an indicator as to why. Divided into three parts, with the interval between the first and second, the director's tendency to hint at interesting ideas then assume the text will carry the rest of the scene is particularly apparent in the first.

Not that there's not fun stuff going on, with James a very entertainingly resigned Imogen, rolling her eyes impatiently at the hoops she's made to jump through by wicked stepmothers, capricious Kings and random wagers on her honour. She's fun both as adversary to Wilkes' Iachimo, and as playmate to the hyperactive brothers she didn't know she had. Glean also goes for an OTT Cloten that certainly keeps the production's arch tone going. But I still found myself getting tired by scenes that always seem to go on that bit longer than they should.

Fortunately this is the kind of long show that saves the best for last. I've often been bored by the Roman battle scenes in the latter acts but there's quite a nice relationship set up with Theo Ogundipe's noble adversary Caius Lucius that helps move them along. (It doesn't really stand out among all the other fuckery but the mortal enemies in this play really like and respect each other, and not even in a homoerotic Coriolanus way.) And once a shirtless golden Jupiter descends from the flies to appear in a dream-that-isn't-a-dream, Doran really embraces the silliness.

So we get a rather joyously daft finale as the characters get caught up on the labyrinthine confusions Shakespeare has put them through, and Jake Mann gets to be a late scene-stealer as the Queen's mystic, filling in the details of her various plots to casually murder half the people she knows. Cymbeline's plot is pretty much gibberish, and embracing the fact that it's gibberish is what ultimately works in the production's favour. Shakespeare and Doran put us through a lot for the sake of the climactic scene's extended gag, but at least it's a good gag.

Cymbeline by William Shakespeare is booking until the 27th of May at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 3 hours 20 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Ellie Kurttz.

No comments:

Post a Comment