In a fortuitous combination of celebrations, not only is this the 50th production directed for the Royal Shakespeare Company by its Artistic Director Emeritus, Gregory Doran, it’s also 400 years since the publication of Shakespeare’s First Folio, without which we might not have had several of the great man’s plays, including Cymbeline. Tucked away near the bottom of the list of plays in most collected editions of Shakespeare’s plays, poor old Cymbeline has been overlooked for a century or more. Relatively rarely performed or studied, I managed an entire summer term reading Shakespeare at University and not once did it come into my orbit.
When I was about thirteen, gentle reader, one day I decided I would count the lines in each of Shakespeare’s plays and create a list of how long they all were, to see which was the shortest and which was the longest. What an insufferable little prig I must have been. However, fifty or so years later it remains one of the most useful pieces of research I ever did. Whilst Comedy of Errors heads the list as his shortest play, Cymbeline weighs in at a hefty 3,286 lines, beaten only in the length department by Coriolanus, Troilus and Cressida, Richard III and Hamlet.
I mention this because there is something of an elephant in the room with this production, or rather in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; it’s a long play. Including an interval and a five minute pause (which doesn’t really feel long enough to achieve the double whammy of the Gents and the Gin and Tonic), the show lasts for the best part of three and a half hours. Surely, it could be cut back a bit? No. Shakespeare has packed this play with so many fascinating characters and so many plot elements, that’s it’s hard to see how you could pare it back at all, without depriving it of a vital part.
The initial set-up of the play is a little complicated. Cymbeline is King of Britain; he is married to the Queen – she seems to be just called Queen. However, previously he was married to another queen, who gave birth to Imogen. Imogen has given her heart to Posthumus Leonatus, an orphan whom the King brought up but has no royal lineage, and so is considered an unsuitable match for Imogen. Meanwhile, the Queen was also married once before, and that marriage bore a son, Cloten, a foolish braggart, who has been earmarked to marry Imogen. The Queen is not to be trusted, by the way; she asks her doctor Cornelius to supply a bottle of poison because she plans to murder both Cymbeline and Imogen, However, Cornelius hands her a bottle of harmless sleeping potion instead because he can see right through her little game. Oh, and Cymbeline also had two other sons, Guiderius and Arviragus, and they were stolen away as babies, apparently by the banished Lord Belarius, but you needn’t worry about them yet. I hope you’re taking notes, there will be questions later.
Posthumus is also banished, to Italy, where he meets a nobleman, Iachimo, who wagers that he could seduce Imogen with ease. Riled, Posthumus accepts the bet, always convinced that Imogen would remain faithful. And so she is, as Iachimo is disappointed to discover. This leads him to some subterfuge, hiding in her bedroom so that he can report back on the artwork on the walls, and, more tellingly, the mole on her left breast, of which he sneaks a peek. Then follows a sequence of events, including Posthumus instructing Pisanio, his servant, to murder Imogen (he doesn’t), and Imogen having to go rogue and disguise herself as a boy, Fidele, who by chance pals up with Belarius and the two boys (remember them?) living rough outside Milford Haven. I’ve been to Milford Haven; this part of the story is entirely believable.
I’m going to stop there; but there’s so much more plot to follow. Shakespeare must have had a field day incorporating all his favourite plot twists and characterisations that had proved successful in the past. A girl dressed as a boy, a wicked Queen, a beheaded villain, a chaste woman tested, a sleeping potion that makes people think you’re dead, a banished Lord, even a Deus ex Machina (if you’re going to have one, it might as well be Jupiter, voiced by Patrick Stewart). There are themes of honesty and betrayal, forgiveness and redemption, noblemen foraging in the wild, and foolish fops at court. It shows beautifully how if a common man commits a murder he will die for it, but if a Royal figure does it, that’s ok. There’s a stunning scene – spellbindingly clear and simple – when Posthumus holds Iachimo’s life in the palm of his hand, but rather than choose a path of revenge, responds: “the pow’r that I have on you is to spare you; the malice towards you to forgive you. Live, and deal with others better.” For me, the most telling moment in the entire play. It even asks questions about Britain’s identity; is it part of the Roman Empire or a solo state, refusing to pay the tribute to Rome, because Britain can thumb its nose at Europe? Where have we heard that before? I can just imagine that tribute sum written along the side of a bus.
But what makes this play unique in all of Shakespeare’s works – I think – is the way all these tiny elements and themes become convincingly but hilariously resolved in a riotous final scene that makes your toes curl with pleasure. The play is famously considered uncategorisable. Is it a tragedy? Certainly not in the classical sense. Is it a history? Although the character of Cymbeline is based on Cuneboline, King of Britain from AD 9 to 40, the play owes far more to Holinshed’s Chronicles than any history book. I always think of it as a comedy, but with most of the laughs kept back for that final scene.
The Royal Shakespeare Company has developed something of a reputation for pushing the boundaries as far as experimental productions of Shakespeare’s Classics is concerned. Setting them in different times; gender-swapping on major roles; using the powers of the audience’s imagination rather than simply conveying plot and character as they were written. As always, this sometimes works brilliantly, and sometimes fails; experimental ideas can go wrong, and you’ll never know unless you try them. But Gregory Doran’s production is – for the most part – tradition and simplicity itself, unadulterated by unnecessary directorial distractions or clever-clever interpretations. And it feels as fresh as a daisy and as clear as daylight as a result. No need for any stage furniture, other than Imogen’s bed and the chest in which Iachimo hides; no need for a complicated sound plot, other than Ben McQuigg’s band’s simple musical accompaniments and a little rainfall. Matt Daw’s lighting design is effective without being intrusive; there is some occasional use of puppetry which works extremely well.
The performances are first-rate throughout; some are outstanding. Peter de Jersey makes for a gruff and blustering Cymbeline, physically imposing if with some weakness of health (which becomes clear in that all important final scene), quick to ire but essentially generous of spirit. There’s an element of the pantomime villain in Alexandra Gilbreath’s Queen, but none the worse for that, as she shares her devious plans quite openly with us. Amber James is superb as Imogen; stoic, gracious, and full of pluck. Conor Glean’s Cloten is thuggishly foppish, bombastically arrogant; an excellent portrayal of someone who is all façade and no substance.
The always reliable Mark Hadfield puts in a tremendous performance as Pisanio; the character’s thoughts and feelings being conveyed not only by Mr H’s superbly clear delivery but he also has that enviable ability to express a whole range of emotions with the simplest of facial gestures. Jamie Wilkes chillingly captures all Iachimo’s Lothario-like wretchedness, including how deflated he is when the truth comes out – like all bullies, he is pathetic. There are a couple of terrific double acts, in Scott Gutteridge and Daf Thomas’ Guiderius and Arviragus, and Barnaby Tobias and Tom Chapman as the two lords who attend on Cloten. Jake Mann makes the most of Cornelius’ two scene-stealing appearances, and Theo Ogundipe’s incredible enunciation invests the character of Caius Lucius with huge authority. Perhaps best of all, Ed Sayer’s Posthumus commands the stage with every appearance; lowly-born though his character may be, he truly makes you understand what nobility really means.
The Press Night audience gave it a rapturous reception – quite rightly so. Gregory Doran leaves the RSC with a magnificent legacy of work, and Cymbeline is right up there with the best. It’s on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 27th May, and if you’ve never seen this hidden gem of a Shakespeare play before, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.
Production photos by Ellie Kurttz