I had misgivings about coming to see this production of Cymbeline at the RSC. A friend had pinged me a message after seeing it the day before: “I have seen Cymbeline, alas” was his pithy summation.
Pithiness is indeed what many have deemed this production to lack. It runs at a chunksome three hours and 25 minutes (including interview), cut down from a whopping four hours apparently.
So, yes brevity is not the soul of wit here, but what this production does have is a whole lot of soul.
So, briefly, Cymbeline tells the story of the Innogen, the daughter of the eponymous British monarch, who has secretly wed the low-born Posthumus. The new husband is banished by a furious Cymbeline; he goes into hiding in Rome, where he meets a smarmy Iachimo who reckons he can pop over to England and make love to Innogen with her consent — the two young bucks have a wager. After a bit of skullduggery gullible Posthumus erroneously believes Innogen has been unfaithful, and so he decides to have her killed. There follows a swapping of letters, threatened suicide, many tears, sobs and ripping off of clothing, war, a puppet show; plus those Shakespeare staples: cross-dressing, poison that’s really a sleeping draught, mayhem in the woods and the recovery of long lost, previously thought deceased, siblings.
It’s a chaotic beast of a play, with characters doing personality u-turns throughout, and a soap operaesque plot that even Hollyoaks scriptwriters would baulk at. Indeed George Bernard Shaw decided Cymbeline was the “stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order”.
But what this production, directed by Melly Still, does so brilliantly is to embrace those bonkers overblown aspects of the play, and make a compelling, overwhelmingly heartfelt spectacle.
The battle against the Roman soldiers is a wild, visceral affair, brutal but beholding it is like witnessing a ballet: indeed the hitherto wimpy Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera) dons his wife’s discarded tutu and turns into a leaping possessed warrior.
The whole thing looks brilliant. Anna Fleischle’s depicts a timeless post-urban dystopian Britain, where the inhabitants’ clothes are upcycled from scraps, matched with unkempt hair they look like Mad Max rejects. The sets are compelling: a wild Welsh wood is a canopy of mud and sticks that swings above the actors; while Rome’s classical splendours are given the neon tackiness and music of a Euro disco.
There are some cunning switcheroo of genders, too, and most notably here is Cymbeline, from king to queen, which adds a certain nuance to the role, played by Gillian Bevan with verve and wit — she moves from harsh to harsh-but-with-heart rather marvelously. The duke (previously wicked stepmother) is played as wonderfully oily by James Clyde.
Despite great showings from Oliver Johnstone as flashy wide boy Iachimo and Marcus Girffiths as cocaine-snorting Duke’s son Cloten, the stand out performance comes from Bethan Cullinane as Innogen, who makes the transition from lusty young girl in love to domestic abuse victim to heroine with honesty, bravery and tremendous vulnerability; her tears and quivering lip never seem less than entirely genuine, and she commands your gaze and sympathy whenever she is on stage.
The audience is very aware of Europe throughout. I particularly liked the Dad’s Army opening credits-type maps projected on to the back wall to ‘explain’ the Roman invasion… And so Cymbeline’s acquiescence to Caesar at the finale for the sake of peace, despite her victory against his soldiers, seems to be particularly poignant given the current EU debate. She declares “A Roman and a British ensign wave friendly together” before the play’s end and they exit (not Brexit!).