Queen Cymbeline rules over a dystopian Britain in the near future. With her two older children stolen years ago, she is enraged when her only child left, Innogen, marries her lover in secret. Innogen’s new husband, Posthumus, is banished and Innogen is left devastated in England.
Melly Still’s production is noted for some obvious ways in which it departs from the original, including the gender swapping of characters, the vaguely futuristic setting and the addition of European languages in a few scenes.
Cymbeline is a strange play. It has domestic quarrels, it has war, it has mistaken identity. You’re not quite sure if it’s a comedy or a tragedy. The plot is all over the place and the resolution scene goes on for such a long time that even the characters get confused. At some point, Posthumus has a dream about his family complaining to Jupiter, and the entire scene is frankly bizarre. Following the previews, the production running time has been cut and it now runs for 3 hours and 20 minutes – longer than Hamlet.
However, to my surprise, I wasn’t bored. With the cuts, the play is fast-paced, surreal and exciting, spanning between locations, perspectives and plots. It may not have deep philosophy or profound messages but it felt like watching a good adventure film. The characters aren’t complex but they’re fun and I found myself rooting for all of them, good and bad ones alike.
The stage, with its spinning towers and moving set, was relatively simple but immersive, showing clear distinction between the locations. Like many others, I was not a fan of the surtitles, especially since a suspended piece of the stage obstructed my view in the second half. I already suspend my disbelief about so many things, I think I can imagine the Italian characters speaking Italian.
One of my favourite parts of the production was the siblings Guideria (gender swapped from Guiderius, played by Natalie Simpson) and Arviragus(James Cooney), Cymbeline’s lost children who grew up in the wilderness of Wales. Their movements and interactions with each other were amusing and heart-warming, and the general niceness of their characters stood out in a world full of evil and messed up people. The funeral scene featured the two singing out the verses, and it felt moving and genuine.
The gender swapped characters feel natural: Gillian Bevan’s Queen Cymbeline is regal, awe-inspiring yet vulnerable when it comes to her children; James Clyde’s Duke is an entirely convincing wicked step-father and Kelly Williams’ Pisania is loyal, affectionate and tormented. These characters’ qualities transcend their genders, and while the swap has added new meaning in some actions or lines, the humanity of them ultimately shines through.
I enjoyed the wager between Iachimo, so confidently played by Oliver Johnstone, and Posthumus, played by Hiran Abeysekera. The conversations between these two could easily seem unbelievable as Posthumus comes across as somewhat gullible and extreme in his reactions in the text. In the production, however, you could see the tired and upset Posthumus being carefully manipulated by the charismatic and extremely persuasive Iachimo.
Since I’m talking about music, special mention must go to Cloten’s (Marcus Griffiths) song he performed hoping to catch Innogen’s attention. The performance is subtly humorous, winning Cloten and his mini-band a round of applause in the theatre.
The main character Innogen (the play is called Cymbeline, but we all know it’s a story about Innogen getting screwed over) was played by Bethan Cullinane, and what a relatable Innogen she is. Among all the incompetent, passive and downright evil characters, she is a shining beacon of hope. Her emotions gripped me in every scene she was in, but what I like most about Cullinane’s Innogen was her joy. When she got a letter from her banished husband asking to meet up, she jumped around in happiness, questioning Pisania on how soon they could get to Wales. Her childlike innocence and uncontained joy were genuine and comforting.
Would I recommend it? Yes. For the characters, for the set, for the music. It’s fun and not what you would normally expect from Shakespeare. Even if you don’t like the play, you can still go for Innogen’s magnificent tutu. That’s a foolproof crowd-pleaser right there.
Cymbeline will be in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until the 15th of October.