Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 10th May 2023
Greg Doran bows out of his tenure as Artistic Director of the RSC with this production of one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plays. Set vaguely during the era of the Romans invading Britain, this play sees Shakespeare rounding up all his favourite tropes and packaging them in a dark and funny fairy tale. These days we call them ‘Easter eggs’ and there is a lot of fun to spot what comes from which previous work: the girl dressed as a boy, the death potion, the faithful servant in exile, the wicked queen… But the play is more than a hodgepodge of Shakespeare’s greatest hits.
Leading the excellent cast is Peter De Jersey as the titular king. Cymbeline is hotheaded, railing against circumstances – De Jersey makes a strong impression even though the title role is not the lead role; I can easily picture him playing Lear. The lead is his daughter Imogen, supposedly his last surviving child. Theirs is a fiery relationship. Imogen combines the temper of Hermia with the big heart and wit of Viola. Amber James is pitch perfect in the part. Ed Sayer, as her banished husband Posthumus, is valiant and heroic, but prone to the machinations of Jamie Wilkes’s scheming braggart, Iachimo. Wilkes is a cocksure delight and later, when it all goes belly-up, his crisis of conscience and remorse come across as heartfelt.
Alexandra Gilbreath’s evil Queen is hilarious, melodramatically stalking around, manipulating everyone while letting us see her true face. Equally funny is Conor Glean as her petulant, vainglorious son Cloten, in a superbly cartoonish portrayal.
The mighty Christian Patterson exudes honour and decency as the big-hearted Belarius, while Scott Gutteridge and Daf Thomas are also excellent as his adopted sons. There is a lovely moment when they mourn the supposedly dead Fidele (Imogen cross-dressed) and they sing a haunting lament, Fear No More The Heat of the Sun. That the moment comes hot on the heels of a laughter-inducing shock with the introduction of a severed head to proceedings, shows how well Doran handles the mood swings of this split personality of a show.
Stephen Brimson Lewis’s simple set, a circle suspended over a horizon, serves as night, day, England, Rome, Wales, without gimmickery, allowing the actors room to play. Beautifully lit by Matt Daw and just as beautifully underscored by Paul Englishby’s folk-informed score, this is a production that has fun and therefore is fun, with a cast unencumbered by enforced stylisation that doesn’t serve the text. It could be seen as Greg Doran revisiting all his best bits and making them fresh and new. Because the play is not overly familiar, like some of the works, audiences don’t bring expectations; we’re not waiting for famous speeches (there are none!) so we can just take it in and enjoy it at face value. The final scene of protracted revelations and resolutions is hilarious and yet moving. Magical.
It’s great to see the RSC returning to form, and we shall miss Greg Doran for his mastery in bringing the bard to entertaining life.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Thursday 8th November, 2018
Gregory Doran sets his production of Shakespeare’s Trojan War story in a post-apocalyptic, Mad Max-type world – although we have to wait a considerable while for the action and excitement associated with the genre when we finally get to climactic scenes of armed combat.
Here, leather-and-denim-clad women are as likely to be butch warriors as the men, and so we get Suzanne Bertish’s shock-haired Agamemnon, Amanda Harris’s fiery Aeneas, and the mighty Adjoa Andoh’s wily Ulysses. There is a humorous tone to the piece that Doran tends to emphasise, as Shakespeare satirises the supposedly heroic figures, but the production’s Achilles heel, if you will, is its lack of emotional attachment. It looks great and sounds great but it does not grip or move.
Gavin Fowler makes an appealing Troilus, comical in his awkwardness and initially more of a lover than a fighter. Amber James is fantastic as a stately Cressida, using a cool wit as a shield. When she blurts out her love for Troilus, she immediately backpedals, unwilling to allow herself to experience or display her true emotions. Even though the play is named for them, they are merely two characters among a host of many, and their story feels undeveloped. As the go-between who, um, goes between them, Oliver Ford Davies is tremendously enjoyable as the doddering, overly attentive Pandarus.
Andy Apollo (yes, really) is an Adonis of an Achilles, striding and posing about the place with James Cooney’s sweet and boyish Patroclus at his side. This pair of lovers is perhaps more tragic than the titular couple; when Patroclus is struck down, it provides a rare moment of empathy from us.
Andrew Langtree’s Menelaus would not be out of place in an Asterix book, while Sheila Reid’s grubby Thersites is like a dystopian Wee Jimmy Krankie (if that’s not a tautology). Theo Ogundipe is a delight as thick-headed Ajax.
Original music by virtuoso percussionist Evelyn Glennie evokes the clatter and clang of battles we don’t get to see. There are many things to admire and enjoy but as a whole, these things don’t amount to a hill of beans. Shakespeare’s genre-defying play is notoriously difficult to pin down. Doran’s funny, orotund and noisy production lacks depth. It’s Troy without weight. By the end of this loud but empty spectacle, I yearn for Tina Turner to come on and belt out We Don’t Need Another Hero. It would be apt at least.
Brought to heel: Andy Apollo as Achilles (Photo: Helen Maybanks)
The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 11th October, 2017
Kimberley Sykes’s new production of Christopher Marlowe’s classic romantic fantasy is, in short, a corker. This is a world where gods interfere directly with the lives of mortals – the two species are differentiated by costume: the gods in modern day dress, the humans in period costume. It can be no accident that Jupiter (the wonderful Nicholas Day) bears more than a passing resemblance to RSC Artistic Director Mr G Doran… Ellie Beaven is glamorous in a Miss Scarlet gown as the meddling Venus, and Ben Goffe is in good form as the cheeky, mischievous Cupid, pricking his victims with a syringe of Venusian blood.
As the eponymous monarch, Chipo Chung is every inch the regal ruler, albeit an accessible and hospitable one. Her attachment to the warrior Aeneas (Sandy Grierson) unleashes passionate and capricious emotions; Dido is very much in the Cleopatra vein, at the mercy of her passions – and so is everyone else. Chung is fantastic, compelling and credible in her excesses of emotion. Grierson makes a fine paramour as Aeneas – he does come across as a little bit quiet at times but his recounting of the Trojan War is a vivid and gripping piece of storytelling.
Kim Hartman does a pleasing turn as a Nurse, tricked and pricked by Cupid, and Andro Cowperthwaite is especially alluring as Jupiter’s toy boy Ganymede. Bridgitta Roy stalks around with a stick as the conniving Juno and Amber James brings intensity as Dido’s sister Anna. I also like Will Bliss’s somewhat rangy Hermes, with wings in his hair.
Mike Fletcher’s original compositions, played live by a tight ensemble, add plenty of locational colour, while Ciaran Bagnell’s versatile lighting plan brings texture and variety to the deceptively simple staging. Designer Ti Green gives the actors a stage covered in grey sand. Pristine at first, it is soon disrupted and imprinted by the footprints of all the comings and goings. It says a lot of the impermanence of life, I find, how easily our presence can be erased.
Above all, the show is a lot of fun. Heightened action, passions running at full tilt – you can see why the tale is well suited for opera – stirring emotions and more humour than you might expect.
The show contains a lesson in how refugees might be treated, as people today continue to flee for their lives from war-ravaged countries. Unfortunately, men (it’s invariably men, isn’t it?) persist in committing the atrocities Aeneas describes – but where is the divine intervention now?
Yass, Queen! Chipo Chung as Dido (Photo: Topher Mc Grillis (c) RSC)