Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Gregory Doran
It may be called a problem play and be one of the less well-known of Shakespeare’s writings, but this production of Cymbeline shows us what can be achieved if you put it in the hands of a director at the top of his game. Eschewing any thought of adding more concepts to an already trope-laden piece, unlike the previous RSC outing in 2016, Gregory Doran has given us something that has found every bit of humour in a back-to-basics production. It’s a landmark for a number of reasons – 2023 marks the 400th anniversary of the publication of the First Folio, without which so many of Shakespeare’s works would have been lost, and this production of the last play in the Folio marks Doran’s final production for the RSC.
Cymbeline is another one of the late plays that rehashes many of the ideas found in earlier works, and you’ll find them here in spades, all piled on top of each other in a glorious hotch-potch of themes that give us something far more akin to a pantomime than the tragedy it’s categorised as in the Folio.
Cymbeline is King of Ancient Britain. Married to his second wife, he wants his daughter Imogen to marry his stepson Cloten but she has instead married Posthumus in secret. Banished to Rome he meets Iachimo who makes a bet that he can seduce Imogen – a wager that Posthumus will come to regret. Imogen flees to Milford Haven pursued by Cloten who is determined to rape her, but she is saved and reunited with her husband via the most unlikely of circumstances.
Peter De Jersey gives Cymbeline a gruff gravitas, in keeping with a character who’s easily manipulated and not immediately likeable yet full of heart in the end. Alexandra Gilbreath is a wonderfully funny Queen, throwing herself into a role that’s straight out of the pantomime book of wicked stepmothers, with Conor Glean giving us a nicely comic spoilt and self-centred Cloten, stamping and truculent at one point, then as scheming as his mother at another.
Amber James gives us a likeable and steadfast Imogen, the wronged wife who gets our sympathy as she tries to make sense of why her husband has turned against her, with Ed Sayer as a jealous Posthumus and Jamie Wilkes as an Iachimo who’s determined to win his bet regardless of who gets hurt.
The set design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is taken back to basics too, leaving the cast free rein to do their jobs unencumbered by scenery. A bare stage is dominated by a huge disc, which changes from scene to scene to give us a hot sun or gentle night – or become an ominous red warning of impending invasion, all part of Matt Daw’s atmospheric lighting design; the eagle that bears Jupiter to Earth is a thing of wonder. Characters and settings can be identified by their costumes, from Roman armour to furs, and the score by Paul Englishby puts the final piece into the jigsaw with a distinctive theme for each location, giving us a sense of coherent harmony.
It’s not without its flaws. The underscore, good though it is, threatens to drown the dialogue through most of the first scene, which is a problem as this sets the whole background to the story – an important scene for those unfamiliar with the plot. It’s a minor niggle in an otherwise excellent production where every bit of business, sideways glance and pause has been thought through in a piece where even the implausible coincidences and mass of ideas in the script are easily forgiven as they all contribute to the comedy.
It’s a very funny production, full of heart and an excellent, if maybe bittersweet, swansong for Gregory Doran.
Runs until: 27 May 2023