Last Updated on 8th May 2023
Our very own theatreCat Libby Purves reviews Cymbeline at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford Upon Avon.
Royal Shakespeare Theatre
GATHER ROUND AND HEAR AN OLD, OLD STORY…
Deep breath, concentrate at the back: there’s this Ancient Briton King, who once banished a chap who vengefully stole his baby sons, leaving just a daughter Imogen who is currently disgraced by marrying a commoner and refusing her loutish stepbrother. Her true love is banished to Rome, tricked into suspecting her virtue, plans murder but – we’re in Wales now, by the way, with bows and arrows and dead animals slung over chaps’ shoulders – Imogen dresses as a boy. And thus, unknowingly, meets her lost brothers and apparently dies. But has she? Oh, and there’s a war about tax, and some Roman legionaries…
Don’t worry. Honestly, don’t. You’ll love it. The great director Greg Doran, lately heading the RSC, has a particular gift for storytelling and clarity. The traditional Eng-Lit division of Shakespeare plays into tragedies, histories, comedies, and the final redemptive “romances’ has often caused scholarly arguments about which variety Cymbeline is, but forget all that: it’s a rattling good yarn, unafraid to jump the shark a few times, and Doran knows what to do with it. Just tell the story, hold us rapt. To quote another play, “it is required you do awake your faith”
George Bernard Shaw and Dr Johnson both hated this one, and one notable critic decided that the author was tired and had started deliberately caricaturing his own earlier characters. Certainly, King Cymbeline has Lear-like moments, Imogen like Juliet wakes thinking she is by her lover’s corpse, a banished patriarch raises children in the wild like Prospero, Iachimo is a pound-shop Iago with a dash of Richard III. There’s a mistrustful lover, a scheming Queen, cross-dressing, siblings reunited, a potion, a surprise descent from the sky and one of the RSC prop team’s best-ever decapitated heads, scowl and all.
But it is not caricature: the language is tremendous, so is the emotional depth and subtlety brought out with loving care in this production. The stagecraft and costumes are RSC-magnificent. Stephen Brimson Lewis gives us a simple bare arc beneath a great moon which moves between silver, gold and scarlet, every scene as vividly grouped and full of meaning as an Old Master. The music, specially composed by Paul Englishby, drives the feeling of the story with uillean pipes, cello, flutes and trumpets. There are moments of sharp comedy from Conor Glean’s loutish Cloten. and sometimes from Alexandra Gilbreath gloriously relishing the Queen’s wickedness. There are even gales of laughter between heartstopping moments as many ragged, bloodstained, confused characters reach the final deliberately overcomplex resolution. Amber James is a stalwart, spirited Imogen and the great lament “Fear no more the heat o’the sun” is sung with unforgettable simple gentleness by the two lost brothers in their ragged hunting clothes.
So from the moment the characters step out towards us, formal from the upstage shadows, there is a sense of being led: sitting safe by a fireside, being told a tumultuous story. Absurdities of plot fade in the certainty of each character: Jamie Wilkes’ cozening Iachimo listing the furnishings of Imogen’s bedroom like a creepy estate agent, and later blaming his villainy on “mine Italian brain” (foreigners! clearly can’t help it). There’s Mark Hadfield’s loyal little servant Pisanio, trapped between affection and instructions, the nervous court doctor and anxious maidservants, the good-hearted rumbustious teenagers in the Welsh wilderness and of course the short-tempered King himself (Peter de Jersey) manipulated by his Queen into worriedly confronting Theo Ogundipe’s towering, metalled Roman general.
Characters large and small, each rightly weighed, hold it together round Imogen’s journey. No wonderful word is wasted, whether a solemn final forgiveness – “live, and deal with others better”, or one of Shakespeare’s glorious verbal nimblenesses. Like Pisanio’s excellently trans advice to Imogen as she dresses as a boy: drop womanly ways and be “saucy and as quarrelous as the weasel”. Many confrontations stand out in memory and haunt dreams overnight. There’s power in poor Pisanio’s defiance of Imogen’s suicidal despair ( Hadfield is wonderful) and in the brief audience laugh when Cymbeline is baldly told that the dead Queen “never loved you…married your royalty, abhorred your person” . Then the laugh is silenced by the King’s real shock.
Oh yes, we were under the storyteller’s control all the way through: led with a sure hand down a wild, crooked stony path. That is an exhilarating thing
Cymbeline runs to 27 May. (Not long enough in my view, how am I going to get back there??)