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REVIEW: Steve Sutherland rates Cymbeline at the RSC a five-star winner

Cymbeline, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, until 27th May

Steve Sutherland reviews Greg Doran’s final production as emeritus artistic director for the RSC

UMBRAGE. Isn’t that an excellent word? Umbrage. It’s almost onomatopoeic in the way it echoes one’s feelings of offence and resentment. Anyway, I only bring this up because our review of the RSC’s previous main stage outing in which we richly praised the gleeful vandalising of that old warhorse Julius Caesar was met with a fair amount of umbrage on behalf of Herald readers who exercised their right in the Stratford pubs and letters pages to pronounce the production, not to mention our write-up, pretentious.

CymbelineRSC/Ellie Kurttz
CymbelineRSC/Ellie Kurttz

Well fear not, there’s no chance of any more of that arty tomfoolery here because this time around the RSC plays the bard with a perfectly straight bat. Cymbeline, it must be said, is hardly low-hanging fruit in the Shakespearean canon. One of the last if not the big full sto-p of the playwright’s career, research reveals that it’s long been pushed to one side, considered neither a comedy nor a tragedy but rather a problem play. Indeed, some critics go so far as to suggest that it’s such a muddle of eras, genres and improbable - sometimes ludicrous - plot twists and co-incidences that it evinces our beloved Will was bored with this drama malarkey and somewhat taking the pee, deliberately undermining some of his more famous past crowd-pleasers. I say “research reveals” because Cymbeline is not a play I have ever seen or read before, nor have I been encouraged or recommended to do so. Indeed, I’d always assumed Cymbeline was some sort of heroine. Turns out I was mistaken but, like I said… swept under the carpet.

What a kick, then, to discover that Cymbeline is a play that has been extremely ill-used and hard-done-by if this splendid presentation is anything to go by. Far from the anticipated knocked-off shambles, under the outgoing Gregory Doran’s crystal clear and steady direction, what we are treated to here is a romping fairytale that, at its funniest, is not so far off pantomime. Plotwise, basically it’s about a king (Cymbeline nee Lear), whose daughter (Imogen nee Cordelia) is married against his wishes to Posthumous (nee Romeo, sort of...) who is exiled so that the king’s second wife (The Queen nee Lady Macbeth) can have her married off to her son (Cloten nee a dopey Richard III). The Queen is secretly poisoning the king, the exiled hubby makes a stupid bet with an Italian lothario (Iachimo nee Iago) over his distant wife’s chastity and the distant wife at some stage has to run off, disguise herself as a boy (Imogen nee Rosalind) and take a potion which makes her seem dead when she’s only actually sleeping (Imogen as Fidele nee Juliet). Oh, there’s a beheading too. And a couple of stolen baby princes grown to manhood living out in the woods. And an invading army. So, yup, old Shakey’s greatest hits in a nutshell.


But you needn’t worry your noggin about the rights and wrongs, whys and wherefores of any of that because what it really is super enjoyable entertainment. Staged brightly and minimally against a massive sun/moon suspended disc, the action unfolds via a series of beautifully detailed scenarios where the cast - exemplary all - revel in expressing every mischievous nuance.

Alexandra Gilbreath’s Queen is the wicked stepmother straight out of Cinderella, albeit with a pretty damn fine Cruella Deville coiffeur. Her husky asides and winks to the audience as she administers “medicine” to her hubby are, as they say, comedy gold and when she grows fierce… well, woe betide her enemies. One of the great mysteries, as cheekily raised in the courtiers’ dialogue, is how she ever gave birth to such a pompous twit as her son, Cloten (character clue in the name) played with admirable idiocy by Conor Glean. The bit where he cod-conducts a wooing choir he’s assembled outside Imogen’s bedchamber is a hoot and a half and damn near has the audience on our feet, cheering him on. Oh, and by the way, Bell Biv Devo would like their hair back.

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