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: ‘Macbeth’ @ Royal Shakespeare Theatre

Jonathan Slinger as Macbeth

Despite a fire alarm trying its best to halt the performance of ‘Macbeth’ at the RST, nothing was able to stop this absolutely breathtaking performance of one of Shakespeare’s most renowned plays.

The characterisations were all spot on: Macbeth (Jonathan Slinger) was both scared and lustful of the power awaiting him, whilst Lady Macbeth (Aislin Mcguckin) was brilliantly ferocious and manipulative. Lady Macbeth was, for me, fantastically portrayed: she was the source, strength and support of Macbeth’s power, and the only tragedy regarding her was that she died offstage, which I’ve always thought to be one of the travesties of ‘Macbeth’, as it does not do this fierce and strong woman justice, nor does it reflect the descent she faces in the wake of her wicked deeds, particularly after her handwashing frenzy had built her mental state to a dramatic climax.

Macbeth himself was perfect: he moved from benevolent to destructive convincingly, and his mental agitation was portrayed so as to justify his movement between the two. This was particularly well done either side of the interval: the scene where Macbeth confronts Banquo’s ghost was done with Banquo in sight before the interval, and then again without Banquo after the break, to show how Macbeth appeared in ghostly and real terms. Equally, Banquo (Steve Toussaint) was a brilliant balance to Macbeth, showing the positive lineage of the prophecies to contrast to Macbeth’s downfall.

The highlight of the production, though, was how it was altered from a witches story, to a ghost story: the use of children instead of witches, and the later inclusion of these children in Macbeth’s destruction, was absolutely stunning, and one of the most moving moments of any play I’ve seen. The deaths of these children and Lady Macduff (Caroline Martin) were absolutely heartbreaking, which was particularly enhanced by Lady Macduff’s screams of desperation when she could not act to save her family. The use of the ghosts, haunting the play until its just resolution, was a genius idea, changing the play from one of spectacular magic to one of ethereal hauntings to build tension until the climax of action.

The use of the cellos was another welcome addition to the play, as it followed the tension until the end, building the play towards its final note of resolution. The only trifling issue with these was, occasionally, it was difficult to hear the actors above the music, but this wasn’t a frequent problem as the actors clearly knew how to work their stage.

The conclusion to each characters life, through the doorway to heaven or hell, was wonderfully planned, so as to send everyone to the same place but not the same fate, and provide a definitive ending. Also, the rebuilding of the stage, moving from the ruins of the beginning, to the reconstruction of the stain-glass windows by the ending and removal of signs of destruction, was a powerful visual image, providing scenic as well as dramatic resolution and restoration. It was an elegant touch, and definitely succeeded in providing an aesthetic realm to Macbeth’s tragedy.

There is literally little fault to find with the RSC ‘Macbeth’: it was beautifully acted, and filled to bursting with emotion, so as to sweep you along in the tide of Macbeth’s reign. Although helpful hint if you book tickets: avoid the first three rows, that Reverend enunciates to the point of spitting several feet!!

Review: ‘Comedy of Errors’ @ The Belgrade Theatre

The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry describes the Propeller version of Shakespeare’s The Comedy of Errors as ‘Shakespeare rediscovered’, and they’re not far wrong. Sombreros, naked priests and rousing chorus’ of 80s pop brought Shakespeare tumbling into the 21st century, and the effect was fabulous.

The basic plot is that identical twin brothers, both named Antipholus, and their parents Egeon and Emilia, are separated by a shipwreck, with one twin and the father ending up in Syracuse, whilst the second twin and mother finding themselves in Ephesus, and conveniently enough, these are two cities that despise one another. Also separated in the shipwreck are the servants of both twins, who are twins themselves, both named Dromio…well, it would be odd if Shakespeare made it easy. Egeon gets caught in Ephesus and is threatened with death, but upon hearing that he is searching for the second twin and his wife, the Duke relents and says that if someone can pay Egeon’s bond by the day’s end, he will spare him.

What follows is one of the brightest and funniest adaptations of Shakespeare that I’ve ever witnessed: the continual slapstick over Dromio’s beatings, the references to a ‘spherical’ kitchen wench who is trying to wed the wrong Dromio, the confusion over which Antipholus is which and the general chaos that ensures really does bring Shakespeare to a new level of understanding, and while it’s never easy to understand all the language, Propeller’s quirky performance certainly guides you along wonderfully.

As it would have been in the Elizabethan theatre, all the roles were played by male actors, which certainly added authenticity to the production, as well as boosting the comedy levels even higher than before. The use of Luciana as a ninja-warrior was probably the highlight of the female interpretations, as well as having Adriana as a balding man in a garish coat, and a courtesan in a slightly terrifying rabbit costume. This also highlights the absurdity of the relationships within the play: Adriana, as Antipholus of Ephesus’ wife, brilliantly guides the audience along as a marker of the confusion: shutting her rightful husband out to ‘dine’ with his twin and Antipholus of Syracuse’s propositions of love to Adriana’s sister, Luciana, just show the extremity of the confusion, as well as bringing events to such a height that it’s difficult not to get swept along in the  madness. Antipholus of Ephesus’ rantings in the second half over how he has been falsely accused of being elsewhere is performed with such a manic pace that the audience is left holding their breath alongside him, until he finally collapses from the absolute absurdity of his situation.

The show was brought up to date in several ways, including a separate performance by the cast during the interval of 80s classics to raise money for charity: a feature later incorporated into the second act. The set and costumes were fantastically bright, adding to the hilarity of the situation, as well as the use of music to underline the comedy. The best bit of modern relevance, though, was when the falsely-accused Antopholus and Dromio of Ephesus are put in wheely bins (an obvious substitute for a mental asylum I’m sure), which provokes a quip about the infamous YouTube Cat Bin Lady.

The only (very minor) criticism is Egeon’s speeches: yawn. They were the bit that dragged the play back towards Earth though, and created a gravity for the play to centre around, so as to create a beginning and an ending to the chaos. So while it was a bit tedious to sit through his soliloquies, Egeon is certainly a vital plot-device, in bookending the play and stopping it from losing its bearings.

Overall, however, Comedy of Errors was absolutely brilliant: the actors clearly had a passion for both Shakespeare and in interesting modern audiences in the bard, which led to a brilliant production which can appeal to those who love, and those who tend to steer clear of, Shakespeare’s works. Propeller did a wonderful job, and amongst the madness showed a theatrical sanity which showed the talent within their abilities.