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Cymbeline – Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Writer: William Shakespeare

Director: Melly Still

Reviewer: James Garrington

Cymbeline is one of the less well-known of Shakespeare’s playsand is performed far less often than some of the more popular pieces. In fact, the last time it was performed at the RSC was 10 years ago – and even then it wasn’t the RSC themselves that put it on.

Judging by the current production in Stratford, it is perhaps easy to understand why people shy away from it. To start with it is a long piece, coming in at three hours plus the interval; but it is also incredibly complex, being packed full of different ideas and threads to follow. It is almost as though Shakespeare tried to take all of his best ideas and plot themes from other plays and cram them into one. Among the many familiar themes are a sleeping potion that makes someone appear dead, a woman disguising herself by dressing as a man, children stolen in infancy, mistaken identity, a decapitated body, and a big battle, before the big final scene where everyone explains what’s happened to each other.

If that’s not enough to think about, director Melly Still has decided to add to the complexity – not least by the well-publicised cross-gender casting. Cymbeline (here Queen, played by Gillian Bevan, rather than the traditional King) is ruler of a Britain in turmoil. Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen, the only living heir, has married in secret and her husband Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera) has been banished. Posthumus is tricked into believing Innogen has been unfaithful, so plots to have her murdered, but she escapes and, in disguise, embarks on a journey towards a reconciliation. Meanwhile, a figure behind the throne is plotting to take power for himself and his family, and the Roman army is trying to force payment of a tribute.

Fortunately, for those not familiar with the piece the RSC show programme is, as always, very helpful.

Not content with changing the gender of a number of characters, along with the resulting necessary changes to dialogue, Still and designer Anna Fleischle have introduced other devices which sometimes seem to be a distraction rather than enhancing the production; there’s a tree trunk in a glass case, shadowy characters frequently lurk in the background, wind machines are wheeled onto the stage, and there are falling paper figures, reminiscent of souls cast into hell in a mediaeval painting. Then the characters sometimes speak Italian, French or Latin, complete with surtitles projected onto a wall. Given how seldom the play is performed and the complexity of the plot, adding all of the extra dimensions seems at best unnecessary; sometimes, as they say, less is more.

It the heart of the piece is Bethan Cullinane’s feisty Innogen, who is strong throughout, displaying a combination of firm resolve and tenderness. She has good support from Kelly Williams as a gender-swapped Pisania; and Oliver Johnstone gives a nice interpretation of an Italian Lothario, as he attempts to seduce Innogen, leading to a traditional interpretation of the bedroom scene – very welcome among everything else that’s going on. Meanwhile, Bevan’s Cymbeline strides about the stage like some modern-day Boudicca, coming across as a much stronger character than you might normally expect from the role. Abeysekera’s Postumus seems initially firm in his conviction of Innogen’s chastity, yet seemingly too easily convinced otherwise. Abeysekera should also take care with his dialogue which is occasionally lost, especially to the part of the audience behind him.

Fleischle’s revolving-tower design works well in keeping to action movingbut adds to the complexity with graffiti and occasionally-projected war maps. The design is, though, nicely enhanced by Philip Gladwell’s lighting, both designers taking full advantage of the excellent technical facilities now available in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

While this is a rare opportunity to see an infrequently produced piece, this production of an already complex play feels very over-complicated.

Runs until 15 October 2016 | Image: Ellie Kurttz

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The Central team is under the editorship of Selwyn Knight. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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