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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Review: ‘Hamlet’ @ the Royal Shakespeare Theatre

‘Hamlet’: the play everyone quotes without realising. Ever told someone the dog will have his day? Or to thine own self be true? ‘Hamlet’. It explains its profundity and its endurance through history, and why it’s still one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

The RSC last performed ‘Hamlet’ in 2013, and I was fortunate enough to see the fantastic Jonathan Slinger in the dark role. However, sling your hook Slinger – there’s a new Dane in town, in this deliciously colourful version of the darkest play going.

Paapa Essiedu is at once a young man and soul older than his years; a man who can laugh and play with friends, causing unexpected mirth amongst the audience and making us remember this is someone barely out of education dealing with a tragedy beyond his ken, and yet a man who can give the gravitas to such infamous thoughts as whether ‘to be or not to be’ with gusto. He was at once energetic and dragged down, frenetic yet depressive, twitching yet still inside. Essiedu is a prince on the rise, and if this isn’t the start to an epic career at the RSC I’ll be hugely surprised – he beats Tennant’s hailed Hamlet hands down.

The set and setting were outstanding; to have ‘Hamlet’ as such a bright and colourful event was jarring in the best possible way, showing the real torments of the world Hamlet had to endure. The use of an all-black cast was inspired, showing ‘Hamlet’ to transcend race and culture, and become a play accessible to all.

There wasn’t a weak member amongst the cast, and it’s hard to pick stand outs. I could have cried when Natalie Simpson’s Ophelia lost her mind, especially when screaming horrendously at Gertrude (Tanya Moodie) before being quiet and meek – the role has never been performed move movingly to my eyes. Laertes too, was the most caring brother I have seen in ‘Hamlet’ thus far – I’ve often thought when Laertes declares he’ll give no more tears to one already drowned after Ophelia’s death, it lacks compassion. Marcus Griffiths was not that actor; his denial of tears was difficult, it was a struggle, and it showed him as the caring man his father’s death had set him out to be. Polonius (Cyril Nri) was hysterical as the windbag, and Claudius (Clarence Smith) the perfect blend of ambitiously corrupted and broken.

One thing that happened that I’ve never seen before was Gertrude saw the ghost. This was the moment where I questioned decisions, wondering how the next lines of denial could be spoken, and yet Moodie’s Gertrude was captivating: the bedroom scene became a moment of mother and son united yet divided simultaneously, showing Gertrude making a choice to deny her son’s rationality and use his madness to protect herself. It was unique and well-considered, and made the known play a new experience.

And the end – tragic, devastating and heartstopping. I’m not exaggerating when I say I haven’t seen such a well-choreographed fight scene in my theatrical history; it was flawless without looking overly-rehearsed or like the actors were holding back. And, yet again, a new twist on an old classic in how the fatal blows were dealt, making the excitement as palpable as Hamlet’s hit.

There is just so much to compliment and rave about in this play it could send me mad – a fitting touch for a play so connected with its audience it was literally breathtaking. ‘Hamlet’ plays until the 13th August 2016, and though something be rotten there, visiting the state of Denmark (via Stratford-Upon-Avon) would be a wise choice in this latest RSC masterpiece.