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The Theatreguide.London Review

Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe  Winter 2015-2016

This late Shakespeare play is usually staged if it's staged at all, being one of his least-often revived as a serious drama, only to have the audience fighting the impulse to giggle at some of its excesses. 

For the Globe's indoor theatre director Sam Yates meets the problem audaciously by embracing it let the serious parts of the play be serious and the funny parts funny, and see whether it hangs together. 

In other words, is it possible that Shakespeare actually knew what he was doing? 

And it turns out that he did. A play that walks a thin line between the serious and the ludicrous, and frequently falls over on one side or the other, is thoroughly enjoyable and dramatically satisfying. 

The 'problem' with Cymbeline which this production shows is no problem at all is that a basically serious plot about the damage done to a loving couple by the malevolence of others takes them through one unlikely melodramatic adventure after another. 

Even a somewhat simplified summary will give some idea. Just for the hell of it, a troublemaker convinces the man his wife is unfaithful, and she has to run away to deepest Wales disguised as a boy, where she meets some woodsmen who she will eventually discover are her long-lost brothers. 

A Juliet-style potion makes her seem dead, and she awakens to find a headless corpse that she thinks is her husband. Meanwhile an invading Roman army well, you get the idea. 

And I haven't mentioned the evil stepmother, the swaggering and bumbling suitor, the courageously loyal servant, the dream-vision, the gnomic prophecy, the bad guy's sudden repentance, 'Fear no more the heat of the sun' or the magical appearance of the god Jupiter. 

It may be the season, but Cymbeline sometimes has the magpie randomness and fairy tale quality of a Christmas panto. 

And by playing the serious parts seriously and the heroic parts heroically and the romantic parts romantically and the giggle-inducing parts comically, director Yates discovers that the happy, sometimes mock-heroic, sometimes silly for the sake of being silly, audience-embracing quality of a panto does carry the play more effectively and certainly more enjoyably than many previous attempts to do it entirely seriously have.

It helps that Yates directs at unflagging speed, new scenes moving onto the stage before the previous ones have finished, and that characters are as likely to enter and exit through the audience as the stage doors. And his cast is uniformly excellent, all getting into the spirit of equally embracing the high drama and the low comedy. 

Emily Barber makes heroine Innogen spirited, brave and passionate in love, tears, despair and anger, while Jonjo O'Neill as her husband is the soul of stalwart honour, even when he's wrong about her.  Eugene O'Hare, Pauline McLynn and Calum Callaghan make a trio of eminently hissable panto villains. 

In the tradition of the day the play is named after the highest-ranking member of the cast, though King Cymbeline (father to Innogen and the lost boys) is actually a relatively small role, but Joseph Marcell invests him with a dignity than anchors the play and keeps it from floating off too far into pantoland. 

The casual theatregoer may never get the chance to see Cymbeline again, but even the devoted Shakespearean will be delighted to find a production that captures all the play's dramatic power while openly admitting that parts of it are just plain funny.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Cymbeline - Shakespeare's Globe Theatre 2015

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