Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Saturday 11th June, 2016
Melly Still’s production of Shakespeare’s rarely staged late play embraces the bonkersness of the story – revelling in it, in fact. Set in a dystopian near-future, a post-technological age, there is a medieval quality to the design; inevitably my mind finds parallels with Game of Thrones. The extremes of behaviour, the graphic violence – the play has more villains than your average Shakespeare, and, in this production, when Innogen disguises herself as a boy, she chooses Arya Stark cosplay.
As the beset princess, Bethan Cullinane is an appealing lead, with strength and vulnerability – the emphasis is on the latter. Hiran Abeysekera shows conviction as her secret husband, Posthumus (aka Leonatus), but all the swagger, all the brio, comes from the bad guys. Marcus Griffiths is magnificent as the arrogant, petulant Cloten; his serenade to Innogen is an unalloyed delight. Oliver Johnstone is a delicious Iachimo, a louche lounge lizard, cocky and flash – for me one of his worst transgressions is his lack of socks. James Clyde as the Duke, second husband of Cymbeline (in this show, the titular monarch has been gender swapped), plots and smarms, with elbow patches on his blazer, like a Machiavellian supply teacher.
Queen of the Britons, Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) is authoritative but also world-worn. She speaks with the authority of someone who has been through a lot – as if the loss of two of her children twenty years ago has been eating away at her. Those lost children have been living in Wales all this time. Mere mention of Milford Haven gets a laugh. Natalie Simpson makes a fierce Polydore/Guideria, complete with Xena: Warrior Princess battle cry. Her brother Belarius/Arviragus (James Cooney) is wiry and energetic; he sings beautifully when it comes to Fear No More the Heat of the Sun.
The whole cast is splendid. Among the ensemble, Theo Ogundipe makes a strong impression in a couple of roles, and Kelly Williams stands out as troubled servant Pisania.
Melly Still freezes the action, or slows it right down, during the characters’ many asides – a neat device that reminds us this is not the real world we are witnessing. Also, some scenes are spoken in Italian or Latin, with the text projected on the scenery. This is amusing at first, but Latin doesn’t sound right in an English accent. But then, who knows what Latin sounded like?
The play deals with deceit and treachery, allegiance and devotion. War comes because Britain has not paid its tribute to Rome. After some bloody rushing around and a high body count, Cymbeline agrees to pay what is due. A metaphor for the upcoming EU referendum? If so, Cymbeline is definitely on the REMAIN side. Hooray.
This is a hugely enjoyable production, a real treat to be reacquainted with a play that is not as over-exposed and familiar as the Bard’s greatest hits. Such is its charm and invention, we go along with it. In the same way that the characters take reversals of fortune and revelations on the chin, we laugh along. The sincerity and heart of the performance carries us through the sensationalism of the plot. Another big hit from the RSC.