Review – Cymbeline at the RSC, Stratford, 27 July, 2016

28 07 2016

I enjoyed this. My attention was held throughout and at times it was an utterly absorbing production of a play that is difficult to make so. The songs were a highlight, funky, funny and poignant in turns. Imogen was pleasingly buxom, Posthumous appropriately intense, the Italian scene brilliantly contrasted with a Britain where even the Queen dressed like she was on benefits. There were ‘issues’ – there are always issues – but there were some very effective touches that freshened up the play. The two teenagers I was with expressed pleasant surprise as we left the theatre. They had assumed, on prior experience of Shakespeare, that they would be left emotionally traumatised, but in Cymbeline everything resolves. The final scene is spent tidying up the stage rather than littering it with gore.

All the best action involved a spot-on, suave Iachimo, played by Oliver Johnstone. They say that the baddies are more fun to play and Johnstone revelled in his part, at least until he is humbled and repentant at the end which he seemed to find more difficult to carry off. Some gimmickry is to be expected with the RSC and there was one novelty that worked and one that partly failed. The good one came with the transition to an Italian/Roman setting where we suddenly had the dialogue switching to Italian and found ourselves glancing up at English sur-titles projected onto the scenery wall. It was a move that first worked and then amused as a wonderful, ex-pat, lothario-Philario, pronounced his Italian with a home-counties drawl to the delight of the Stratford audience. For some reason it reminded me of a character in The Talented Mr Ripley. Later, when the Romans land in Britain, we get Latin dialogue, also very effective.

The gimmick that half-worked was having a female Cymbeline. Making the king of the ancient Britons into the Queen of the ancient Britons may not seem to be of much consequence and was played with assurance by Gillian Bevan, but actually it disrupts one of the sub-plots. The problem is with the partner of the monarch who changes from being a Queen to being a male consort and strangely much of the potency of the character is lost in the process. In Shakespeare’s version of the play, we have a decidedly male King Cymbeline who is basically well-disposed towards the Romans and is magnanimous at the end of the play in proclaiming a general pardon and peace and cementing that peace by agreeing to reinstate the tribute to Rome. The problem comes with the two ‘Brexiteers’, the Queen and her son-from-a-previous-marriage Cloten, whose belligerence causes war to break out. Shakespeare’s Queen is another ruthlessly ambitious and manipulative Lady Macbeth but with a new twist. While appearing very sweet to her husband, she is planning to poison both him and his heir Imogen to clear the path to the throne for her son Cloten. Gratuituous gender swappery doesn’t really work here because women tend to do evil and conniving differently to men. Take Iachimo for example. Could you change him to a woman? Call me old-fashioned but I don’t think so, even with major surgery. If you disagree, try this production of Cymbeline and you might see what I mean. The male consort as father of Cloten has nothing like the impact he should have or would have as a mother. This is not even to mention the classical reference to Nero and his mother Agrippina that I have written about elsewhere. I have no doubt that this parallel would have been recognised by at least some of Shakespeare’s original audience but is evidently lost on the RSC (Agrippina was said to have poisoned her husband Claudius with a dish of mushrooms so that her son-from-a-previous-marriage could become emperor).

Lastly, on the subject of Cloten, I thought Marcus Griffiths made a valiant effort but was miss-cast. Cloten is tricky to play because (like Nero) he is both a ridiculous idiot and a physically menacing and politically powerful bully, setting out to rape Imogen while dressed in the clothes of her exiled husband. He is a projection of the kind of thorough-going scum-bag that many of Shakespeare’s contemporaries had cause to fear. We are meant to laugh at him but also despise him. The usual error is to make him such a twit that the sense of threat and disgust is lost, but here the problem was that try as he might, Griffiths was just a little too cool and handsome. Note to casting: try harder to find someone convincingly loathsome.

MCD 28/07/2016