Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s most derided plays, coming quite late in his career (1609) and offering a top-heavy mish-mash of subplots that are never satisfactorily resolved. In some ways it’s like a greatest hits album of his most recognisable plots and techniques cherry-picked from his earlier successes, but thrown together in a bag and shaken about to form another story entirely, one that unfortunately is far less than the sum of its parts.
There’s some star-crossed lovers right out of Romeo and Juliet (1594-5), a maligned female reputation which questions her virtue like Much Ado About Nothing (1598-9), a warrior King who struggles to trust his children (King Lear, 1605-6), some lost siblings and a chance for some female-to-male disguise like Twelfth Night (1599-1600) and people escaping into the magical woods where they meet some common folk as in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1595-6). By the time he wrote Cymbeline, Shakespeare clearly knew what his audience enjoyed but the jumbling-up of stories with very little poetry is one of his more lacklustre and dense efforts.
Although rarely performed, London has welcomed two major productions in a matter of months; The Globe’s modern reinterpretation which has set the seal on Emma Rice’s tenure as Artistic Director, and the RSC dystopian production which arrived in London at the end of October for a two month run and recasts the titular King as a Queen. Cymbeline is the not-so-straightforward story of an ancient British princess called Innogen who has married her lover Posthumus against the wishes of her mother Cymbeline who then banishes Posthumus to Rome. Here, he enters into a bet with Roman, Iachimo ,who tricks him into believing Innogen has betrayed him.
Meanwhile, Cymbeline is guarding the throne from internal plotters while facing a possible Roman invasion. Meanwhile out in the woods, her two lost children are being raised by a woodsman unaware of their royal status. As Innogen is accused by her husband, she decides to dress as a man and sets off in search him, leaving the three sets of characters to mix at a volatile time for Britain.
The RSC’s production is a pretty mixed affair and in many ways it makes a fairly decent job of envisaging what is a poorly constructed play with relatively little character depth. It starts off really well and the first half rattles along quite efficiently and with a decent amount of tension as the drama of Iachimo’s attempts to upset Innogen’s marriage creates plenty of intrigue and villainy. If you’ve seen enough of the Shakespeare plays listed above then you’ll pretty much know where all of this is going but its credit to Melly Still’s direction that you remain engaged and entertained nonetheless.
Much of this is due to Oliver Johnstone’s performance as Iachimo who manages to avoid becoming a finger-drumming panto villain as he develops and executes his plan to smear Innogen’s reputation. When he meets Posthumus in Rome he is every bit the swarve Italian, impeccably dressed and coiffured, and casually bantering with his attendants. Confident he can seduce Innogen before he meets her, he is pleasantly surprised to find her beautiful but also intellectually his equal, and you sense in Johnstone’s performance that Iachimo begins to fall for her, eager to fulfil the bet and keep her for himself. It adds unusual depth to the scenes between them and like Kinnear’s Iago at the National a few years back you might will him to succeed.
One reason for this is the less successful relationship between Innogen and Posthumus upon which much of the play hinges, and here the company fail to really sell this at the start so the audience never quite believes in their passion for one another. Hiran Abeysekera’s Posthumus is an underwhelming presence, never seemingly a physical or intellectual match for Bethan Cullinane’s Innogen, and so easily led during his exile that it’s difficult for an audience to generate any sympathy for the lovers which fatally undermines the dynamic and drive of the play.
By contrast Cullinane makes for a modern and intriguing heroine, determinedly knowing her own mind and, despite being heir, she is happy to go against her parent’s wishes. The teasing relationship Cullinane’s Innogen develops with Johnstone has considerably more depth than the flatter romance with her husband which adds considerably to the tension in the attempted seduction scene giving it a ‘will they, won’t they’ momentum. But throughout Cullinane balances the emotional introspection as Innogen contemplates life without her lover, with the anger and frustration created by being wrongly accused.
Among the rest of the cast there is a mixture of ability, ranging from those who speak the verse very naturally to those who struggle to find its rhythm, and none of this is helped by the characterisation which often lacks depth – although this is Shakespeare’s own fault. And there are some problems with projection which make it difficult to hear even at the back of the stalls so it’s probably considerably worse in the balcony.
To say it’s difficult to care is an understatement, and even a fair amount of gender-switching which works perfectly well, isn’t used to any particularly effect. Gillian Bevan makes a good fist as warrior queen Cymbeline but spends most of the production stomping around in Ugg boots and a dressing gown, while her second husband, the evil Duke, is given a nice platform by James Clyde but somehow the machinations to overthrow the monarch are never clearly articulated in this production, especially in the first half where the romance takes precedence.
Even Anna Fleischle’s visuals are a little inconsistent which adds to the confusion; The British court seems somewhere between a post-revolution dystopia and a steampunk fantasy world. The walls are covered in graffiti and the place looks quite beaten up, and the costumes suggest a court fallen from its previous glory, including a ragged denim outfit worn by Innogen whose ruffles and puffs are tattered and torn, while the Queen struts around in her nightie. Simultaneous scenes in the woods borrow from the Lost Boys while Rome is firmly set in the 1980s with a Miami Vice look that celebrates slicked back hair and blazers.
It’s actually all a bit confused which makes it much harder to place, raising considerably more questions than it answers – why is Britain in a post-holocaust state and not Rome, what possible major even could have decimated one country without affecting a reasonably near neighbour? It would be perfectly sensible if Britain was pre-civilisation and Rome was on its way as a conqueror but it’s clearly meant to be after some kind of war-like disaster so the reason for this difference is a little vague.
And towards the end as much of the action decamps to the forest the whole things gets a bit Peter Pan with vine trails and hideaways that undermine the danger of a fragile community fending off attempted regicide and succession issues, and starts to feel more like a cheery frolic as families are reunited and political issues resolved. Towards the end, after nearly 3½ hours the whole thing starts to feel very laboured as all the threats dry up and the tension created by Iachimo’s villainous plans splutters to a weak conclusion.
Again much of this is Shakespeare’s fault because Cymbeline is a hotchpotch of half realised plots and poorly delineated characters. Initially the RSC’s production manages to paper over some of the cracks with a show that starts strong, with some very good performances that add layers to the characters, as well as an intriguing vision of a society in decline. Yet, this production feels sluggish and unconvincing in the second half as the plot becomes rather flabby and the tone shifts from political intrigue to fantasy adventure romp which all feels rather thinly conceived. A decent effort by the RSC but it’s not going to salvage Cymbeline’s reputation as a play or have you hurrying to see the play again in the future.
Cymbeline is at the Barbican until 17th December. Tickets start at £10 with concessions available. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1