Theater Review: Cymbeline, by the Royal Shakespeare Company

Last night was press night for Cymbeline, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. This “rarely performed” play is touted as a “romance of power, jealousy and a journey of love and reconciliation.”

Shortly after the performance, Shakespeare scholar Stanley Wells, who was in attendance, tweeted: “Cymbeline is surely Shakespeare’s maddest play.” This sums up the beyond-suspension-of-disbelief plot of the play. This graphic from Good Tickle-Brain gives an idea of how over the top the plot is:

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One of Shakespeare’s late “romances,” those plays that don’t fit in the three standard categories – comedy, tragedy, and history – and most of them contain, well, all the plot elements in the above graphic, except one. Critic Harold Bloom said, of Cymbeline, that it is “a revenge by Shakespeare against his own achievements.”

Cymbeline is long; over three hours (not counting a 20 minute intermission), and it feels long. It feels like a lot could have been cut, but the complex nature of the plot makes it hard to cut anything in the beginning that comes back at the end. The RSC’s production takes place in “a divided dystopian Britain,” as the RSC’s summary says; this, I guess, is pretty much like the UK of today. “Britain is in crisis. Alienated, insular and on the brink of disaster. Can it be saved?” But this isn’t the plot of the play. Again, from the RSC’s summary:

“An ineffectual Queen Cymbeline rules over a divided dystopian Britain. Consumed with grief at the death of two of her children, Cymbeline’s judgement is clouded. When Innogen, the only living heir, marries her sweetheart Posthumus in secret, an enraged Cymbeline banishes him.

“Behind the throne, a power-hungry figure plots to seize power by murdering them both.

“In exile Innogen’s husband is tricked into believing she has been unfaithful to him and in an act of impulsive jealousy begins a scheme to have her murdered. Warned of the danger, Innogen runs away from court in disguise and begins a journey fraught with danger that will eventually reunite Cymbeline with a long-lost heir and reconcile the young lovers.”

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(Photos by Ellie Kurtz for the RSC.)

Nothing there about the Romans, who the British will fight near the end of the play (in a bloody, pyrotechnic fight scene), because that’s secondary to the real plot: that of the lovers being separated and then reunited. And the dystopian bit? Some graffiti on concrete walls; some Mad Max costumes; that’s all that suggests a post-apocalyptic landscape. And we suspend disbelief when we see that in Italy, all is normal, with singing, dancing, drinking, and partying. There was no apocalypse in southern Europe, it seems.

It’s a long way from their separation to their union, and you almost need a scorecard or a flowchart to keep track of what’s going on. The RSC’s hyperbolic production makes this even more confusing. Director Melly Still has chosen to pile on the effects, with part of the stage, around a dead tree trunk, rising up to look like artwork by Roger Dean. With extravagant lighting, smoke, and explosions. With song and dance routines. And with a strange way of having the characters move in very slow motion when others are speaking asides.

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With some Shakespeare plays, you need to pay attention because of the subtlety of the plot: Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, even some of the comedies, require that you are attentive to detail. This production of Cymbeline is so manic that it’s hard to follow; it’s best to just go with the flow, and hope it all makes sense at the end. It’s an uneven play, with some long scenes with only two characters (such as the scene where Iachimo is in Innogen’s bedroom as she sleeps; one of the best scenes in the play, because there’s no cruft, just great acting and great language), and others where there’s almost too much going on.

And there were some scenes where the characters spoke in Italian, French, or Latin, with the English texts project on the back of the stage. Why translate Shakespeare’s English for certain scenes? This was just wrong.

The title character, Cymbeline, actually isn’t central to the play. Well portrayed by Gillian Bevan (the RSC has made king Cymbeline a queen in this production), I felt that she sometimes stamped around on stage for no reason. The two main characters are the lovers Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera) and Innogen (Bethan Culliane). I found Innogen to be breathtaking in her performance, and certainly the best actor in this play, but Posthumus was a bit too histrionic at times, and his diction wasn’t always clear. Oliver Johnstone as Iachimo was also excellent both as the full-of-himself Italian come to seduce Innogen, and the contrite prisoner at the end of the play.

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Another group of characters – Cymbeline’s lost children, Guideria (Natalie Simpson, also a wonderful Ophelia in this year’s production of Hamlet) and Arviragus (James Cooney), and Belarus (Graham Turner), the banished soldier who has been raising the children – made a coherent unit, even if their feral nature seemed a bit overdone.

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And “overdone” is be the watchword of this production. Between periods when it seemed to drag, to the last hour or so, with the battle scene and the long, final reconciliation scene, the gears shifted several times during the play. I felt a disconnect between the language and the direction, which made the entire production feel like an exercise in style. Nevertheless, the audience loved it, giving the cast rousing applause and cheers at the curtain calls.

There’s a reason this play is rarely performed. You can take the “lesser” Shakespeare plays and make them very good, if the production fits just right; this was the case with the RSC’s 2014 production of The Two Gentlemen of Verona. But last night’s production didn’t feel just right to me; it felt like it was trying too hard to make the play something it isn’t. This “mad” play may call for a mad production; or, perhaps, something more nuanced. While I felt this was an interesting night out at the theater, I don’t think it quite hit the mark.

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