Review: ‘Cymbeline’ @ the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

The RSC’s production of the much-underperformed and often underrated ‘Cymbeline’ was a different experience for me: it’s the first time I’ve seen a Shakespeare play without having read the script first. As such, it became a small test for me; would I understand it without having studied it?

Answer: yes.

Because the RSC’s production was incredibly accessible and amazingly performed, making three hours of theatre seem like a blur of betrayal, mistrust and reconciliation.

The first thing to note was that Cymbeline was no longer King of Britain; Cymbeline was, in fact, the Queen, with the leering and overly confident Duke preening at her side. It made the play have a different dynamic; suddenly strength was redefined, and to be Queen in such a male-dominated world became a harder task, and instead of being an ineffectual ruler, Cymbeline became a woman with a lot to fear within and without the court. It was an intriguing and wonderful decision, proving Shakespeare still has new dimensions to add hundred of years after the play’s conception.

Innogen became my new favourite female Shakespearean character within this (although technically Guideria could have taken that role, but more gender-swapping means this might not technically be my favourite female). She was feisty, determined, principled and courageous; at least, that’s how Bethan Cullinane played her. I admired her more than Posthumus, a character often proclaimed for his virtues and yet one whose virtues I saw little of. He was easily manipulated and impulsive in all the wrong ways – not the man I would have liked our heroine to pledge her honour to, but still…

I also loved the lighter moments, particularly with Guideria (Natalie Simpson – of Ophelia in ‘Hamlet’ fame) and company in the woods. My favourite lighter moment was when Cymbeline questioned Clotten’s (Marcus Griffiths) fate and, in her best northern accent, Guideria declared ‘I slew him’. It was moments like this that made sure you weren’t fully plunged into the depths of despair, preventing tragedy from becoming all-encompassing and wholly distressing – a feat the RSC has often achieved with wonderful effect.

As I said, having not read the play some of its more delicate symbolism was lost on me until the end; the tree stump in the centre of the stage was a mystery until the closing scenes, where Cymbeline’s tree had regrown with family and honour. It worked, and was a pleasing revelation at the end tying the whole play up neatly. I loved the romantically brutal movements at the beginning separating Innogen and Posthumus, so gently and yet so tragically after their young love was denied.

The only, and it’s absolutely miniscule, thing I disliked about this came from the above scene, where the lovers ended their meeting with Posthumus’ trousers down – a feat unnecessary and a little bit distasteful after all the pledges of undying love. I realised it was so that Cymbeline and the cunning Duke had something to catch more than just Posthumus in a room with Innogen, but something about it jarred with the value of their words for me.

Two questions I would ask of Shakespeare’s play: surely a better resolution than ‘after all that war, let’s give in to Rome’s demands as we should have done in the first place’ could have been found? And where was the comeuppance for Philario (Byrron Mondahl), the erstwhile childcatcher who robber the Queen of her eldest children? These were niggles with the plot rather than production, but suspending disbelief, the experience was still an enjoyable one.

Cymbeline’s reign is short – the RSC and cinema screens host her for a short while, and I urge you to become an attentive citizen and follow a story of love, deceit and family with avid attention…

 

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