Cymbeline appears to be like London buses: you wait a long time to see one; then when one comes so do many others; and you never know what state it is going to be in.
This year, we have already had Cymbeline at the Sam Wanamaker theatre and later this year Imogen, a renamed and “reclaimed” version of Cymbeline will appear at the Globe. Currently playing in Stratford Upon Avon is the RSC’s latest offering of Cymbeline, directed by Melly Still. Still’s idea of the play is vastly different from that seen in the Wanamaker and it is likely to be vastly different from the forthcoming Globe version too.
This is no bad thing. If anything, it suggests that Cymbeline is a much more versatile text than many of Shakespeare’s other plays.
Still aims for epic tragedy, with comic aspects and a modern day resonance, and the final result is closer to the bullseye than not. It’s involving and intriguing throughout, although there are some challenges along the way.
One of those comes from some gender swapping. Here, the titular character is female and her spouse is a male. This is fine, as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough. As written, the regal spouse is an archetypal wicked step-mother, beautiful on the outside and rotten within, willing to murder to secure advancement. Equally, as written, the monarch is weak, unable to overlook the requests of a partner he finds too beautiful to resist: Mine eyes were not in fault, for she was beautiful.
The type of character that Cymbeline’s spouse has is defined by the text. But Still has cast someone who does not fit the type, who is, especially in the company of these actors, not beautiful, and whose portrayal is weak and odd. The only thing diabolical about James Clyde’s performance as the Duke is his two-toned waistcoat. Otherwise, the character is flat and limp and, in no way, provides the undercurrent of pure evil necessary to ensure the plot works.
But equally, nothing comes of Cymbeline being a woman. Gillian Bevan, dressed as though she may have come from the set of a Mad Max movie, unearths no interest or insight from the character because of the changed gender. She is perfectly adequate as a tired warrior Queen but beyond that the gender swap achieves little.
Other gender swaps are equally puzzling. Pisanio becomes Pisania, making it possible for Cloten to convert one sequence from violence into sexual violence. Why that would be thought required or desirable is unclear – surely the world doesn’t need unnecessary and imposed sexual violence against women to be a casual inclusion in Shakespeare? It is the same with the sexual assault on Cymbeline – manufactured atrocity without point.
In Milford Haven there is also a gender swap. One of Cymbeline’s stolen sons, Guiderius becomes Guideria. Again, this seems to be just for the sake of it. Yet, by making the character a woman, a deal of the frisson from those scenes is lost – the two Tarzan-like hunter-gatherers are strangely attracted to the “young boy” they find in the cave (for Innogen has disguised herself as a boy to flee her motherly Monarch). This allows Shakespeare to garner some laughs and to play with the kind of gender fluidity that is central to Twelfth Night and As You Like It. All that is lost here and little replaces it, although it is delightful that Guideria decapitates Cloten – his arrogance and faultless physique are no match for her fighting prowess.
Gender swaps should be unremarkable or they should unearth a new viewpoint for the character or situation. They seem entirely pointless when what is lost by the change is greater than what is gained.
Another challenge comes from Anna Fleischle’s set design which, while fascinating and visually engaging, does nothing to illuminate setting or narrative. The world where the action takes place seems both ancient and modern at once. Cement is everywhere, and graffiti adorns it. Centre stage there is abandoned, neglected litter and a glass case in which can be seen a part of a tree. It’s Britain in some apocalyptic future, apparently, when resources are scarce and living conditions poor.
The costumes of the British characters reflect this – they are patchwork and haphazard. Dreadlocks and long coats suggest Mad Max. But, it is the programme rather than the production which makes this clear. One thing Fleischle’s set does make clear is the difference between Britain and the other major European city location – Rome. Bright projections remind of all the iconic buildings in Rome and the events in Iachimo’s house are full of colour and movement, with an emphasis on fashion and nightclub music providing a stark contrast to the isolated island that is Britain.
It is clear that Still and Fleischle see Cymbeline as a potent contribution to the Brexit discussion. Shakespeare has Cymbeline refuse to pay money/taxes to Rome and war erupts. Suddenly, through failing to play nicely with her neighbour, Britain faces destruction. It is only after a near catastrophic war, with much loss of life, that Cymbeline relents. She does not want her country to suffer from isolation:
I’th’world’s volume Our Britain seems as of it, but not in’t: In a great pool a swan’s nest.
Still and Fleischle up those stakes. By showing Britain as a place where resources are scarce, the environment has been destroyed and life is difficult and colourless, they seek to make the case for staying in the European Union. Watching this version of Cymbeline makes it difficult to imagine why anyone would want Britain to be alone. Even the Welsh here have a better, concrete-free life than the isolated British in this world.
Another change occurs when the action first goes to Rome, following Posthumous after his exile from Britain by Cymbeline who is unhappy about her only heir, Innogen, marrying him. At first, the rule is “When in Rome…” and the partying guests at Iachimo’s house, after a frisky, sexy and fashionista dance routine (Emily Mytton provides superb movement throughout) speak in Latin/Italian and French. Projections of their translated words appear as sur-titles.
At first, this is startling. But it quickly becomes assimilated into the patchwork quilt of the world in which the characters play. It provides a further, insinuating, means of establishing the sense of global action here. It also makes Iachimo and his friends seem exotic and free and underlines Posthumous’ position as a stranger in a strange land. Later, when Cymbeline and Caius Lucius are negotiating terms, they speak Latin: this re-inforces the gravity of the situation as well as showing that Cymbeline can hold her own on the world stage.
Cymbeline is a play where there is no clear lead character. Many roles are meaty and the play works at its best when all are played well. Still has assembled a company which mostly does justice to the possibilities Shakespeare provides.
The most assured and complete performance comes from Oliver Johnstone who makes Iachimo a cad who causes trouble and then comes to repent his wicked ways. It’s a tough tightrope. He has to be skin-crawling when he invades Innogen’s bedchamber and steals from her, jewellery and intimate secrets, but not so much that he can never be forgiven. Johnstone negotiates this especially well – the scene does not feel horrific, but it does seem utterly wrong. Having effortlessly established Iachimo as louche pretty-boy lothario, Johnstone has laid the foundation for the scene. This Iachimo is not malevolent, but deluded, especially when it comes to women.
Johnstone emphasises this by stalking Innogen in her bed while shirtless. At once, he is both vulnerable and odiously cocky. This groundwork means that, later in the play, when Posthumous almost kills him, his position is not entirely without sympathy. Aware he has grievously offended both Posthumous and Innogen by his lies about her chastity, he confesses his cruel infamy in the final scene. Johnstone plays this beautifully. He seems like a lost child desperate to be forgiven. It’s a thoughtful performance full of brio and pathos, demonstrating clearly how a boastful bet can claim a reputation. Johnstone’s mastery of the language is excellent and his voice as muscular and flexible as his lithe physique.
Bethan Cullinane shines as Innogen, despite unflattering costumes throughout and a wig that does not assist with her guise as a boy very much. Her command of the language is impressive and she is especially good in the notoriously difficult scene where she mistakes Cloten’s decapitated body for that of her missing husband, Posthumous. This is all the more impressive here given that the actors playing the two roles could not be less alike physically – yet, so convincing was Cullinane that there were no titters or laughs during this unlikely moment.
The relationship between Innogen and Posthumous is clear and gentle. There is no obvious chemistry between the two, though, and this is emphasised by the sparks that fly between Johnstone and Cullinane when Iachimo tires, but fails, to woo her.
Cullinane is amusing in her dealings with Marcus Griffiths’ spoilt brat Cloten and establishes good rapport with the family she finds in Wales, each of whom are terrific – Graham Turner’s sage Belarius, Natalie Simpson’s fiery Guideria and James Cooney’s wannabe tough-guy Arviragus. Cullinane strives hard to establish a relationship with Gillian Bevan’s weak and tired Cymbeline, but Bevan prefers aloofness as the key to her Cymbeline.
Hiran Abeysekera makes for a memorable Posthumous, particularly in the war scenes in the second half, when he assumes a kind of vigilante assassin role, his head covered in cloth and blood red lips giving him a Joker-sequel sense of the macabre.
He is assiduous with the language, carefully giving equal measure to every word to ensure understanding. Strangely though, he seems to have more chemistry with Johnstone’s Iachimo than Cullinane’s Innogen and, even more strangely, this seems to work well, cementing the notion of a triangle between the three underpinning their actions.
Griffiths’ Cloten is vain and stupid, which makes for good contrast with the machinations of others. His serenading of Innogen is inspired and he cuts a comically suave figure when dressed in Posthumous’ clothes. Griffiths makes his sexual assault of Pisania (Kelly Williams) powerful and hideous, so that when his head is lost no tears are lost with it. For her part, Williams struggles with the language and with a part meant for a man, but she acquits herself well enough.
Bevan starts badly as Cymbeline, her opening lines lost in the snarl of anger, but over the course of the play she brings life and interest to this strange Queen. By the end of the play, it is impossible not to have real sympathy for her; her life has been shattered and defined by loss and pain, and the trembling hope that Bevan shines on the final scene is splendidly done. This is all the more impressive because of the lack of support she is given by the lacklustre Clyde.
The rest of the cast do quite good work and there are superb moments from Eke Chukwu as Lucius (his gravelly voice full of sinewy power), Temi Wilkey’s Philharmonia (a constant presence, haunting and often silent, but eerily powerful) and Theo Ogundipe’s cavalier Frenchman.
Cymbeline is a challenging play but it rewards attention and repetition. It is full of vibrant passages and traverses the territory from romance to horror to comedy in quick steps. Still’s production finds interesting ways to look at Shakespeare’s work afresh and Johnstone’s superb Iachimo makes a real case for anti-hero status for that character.
Refreshing and engaging, and possibly useful if you are in doubt about Brexit.