The TheatreguideLondon Reviews
For the archive, we have filed our reviews of three past productions of Shakespeare's Cymbeline on this one page. Scroll down for the one you want, or just browse.
The lovely little outdoor theatre in Regents Park has been having summer Shakespeare Festivals since the 1930s. To be honest, for much of that period it was the setting as much as the quality of productions that made for successful evenings.
But in recent years, under Ian Talbot's direction, the work has gotten more ambitious, producing some of the best Shakespeare I've ever seen anywhere.
Certainly this infrequently-produced late play of Shakespeare's is a challenge, and I am happy to report that Rachel Kavanaugh's production is first-rate, at least as good as anything the RSC is ever likely to do, and almost as good as the ideal production that exists only in the dreams of Shakespeare buffs.
The plot is so complex as to defy summary. King Cymbeline is actually a secondary character, with the story centred on his daughter Imogen, who has married a commoner who is banished for his presumption. The husband is tricked by a villain into thinking Imogen unfaithful, and orders her death, but the murderer frees her, and she in turn comes to think her husband dead, so that each of them make further decisions based on their unhappy errors.
I haven't even gotten to the evil stepmother and her idiot son, or the long-missing princes living in the wilderness, or the invading Roman army, but you get the idea. Things get so complicated that the final scene, in which one character after another steps forward to explain what was really going on, can't help raising audience giggles.
The running theme through all the plots and subplots is people too quickly believing things they are told and making rash decisions based on that misinformation. And Shakespeare's accomplishment is that, while we always know the truth, the characters don't become foolish, and we sympathise with their very real pain.
And that quality - of recognising and feeling for such a wide range of real human unhappinesses while at the same time knowing that all will turn out right in the end - is what this production captures better than most I've seen. While never quite reaching the heights of tragedy, it is still a moving human drama.
Much credit, then, to director Kavanaugh and her cast for triumphing over the play's plot obstacles to keep everything believably and involvingly human.
This is one occasion is which the decision to play it in modern (well, vaguely 1950s) dress isn't just a gimmick, but an actual aid in our recognising and empathising with the reality of these characters' feelings.
Emma Pallant plays Imogen as a very modern woman, too feisty and intelligent to accept the victim role others keep trying to cast her in. Daniel Flynn may be a bit anonymous as her husband, but Simon Day is a satisfyingly suave and slimy villain and Harriet Thorpe a hissable evil stepmother. Julian Curry conveys Cymbeline's dignity and humanity, and James Loye provides fun as the foolish princeling.
Cymbeline is not a play I would ordinarily recommend as anyone's first exposure to Shakespeare, but this production is so accessible and involving that it would be a shame for anyone to miss it.
The theatre can be a bit hard to find for first-timers, so phone ahead for guidance. Make an evening of it - pack a picnic or buy dinner there. Bring a jacket - as evening slips imperceptibly into night, it can get cool - and an umbrella - you never know, do you? - and expect a surprisingly fine evening of theatre in a delightful setting.
This is one of those shows I was hating by the interval, but discovered in the second half that I had completely misunderstood and underappreciated.
It is, in fact, one of the best productions of this difficult play I've ever seen.
One of Shakespeare's last plays, Cymbeline has a complex plot that defies summary. At its centre are a couple who, among other errors, think each other dead and make bad decisions as a result.
But around them are at least a dozen other plots, counterplots, deceptions, disguises and errors, so that the only way Shakespeare can wrap it all up is a final act of one-after-another revelations and explanations. (One scholar has counted more than twenty in a half-hour, almost inevitably leading to giggles at the excess.)
And it was the fact that nobody in the audience was laughing at the last act this time that confirmed the impression that had been growing in me since the interval - that director Declan Donnellan was doing something very special in this Cheek By Jowl production.
Other directors have given shape to the sprawling play by making it a moral lesson in the dangers of going off half-cocked, or proof of a benign providence, or a growing-up journey for the central couple, or a salute to its spunky heroine. Donnellan makes the play about the need, finally, for forgiveness, reconciliation and peace.
Everything that goes before is just building toward that final scene, when everybody learns what everybody else has done to them and they have done to themselves, and everybody looks at each other and says 'Let us forgive and move forward in happiness.'
It is, of course, a very Shakespearean idea, closely tied to his other plays of the period, notably The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, and it enriches and deepens this play in ways that are new and exciting.
Of course, there are prices to pay. Almost inevitably, Donnellan has to treat all the plot complications as necessary evils, just the set-up for the final discovery. And that's why I didn't like the first half.
Though, in signature Cheek By Jowl fashion, the action and verse-speaking were crisp and clear throughout, there didn't seem to be much point to it all for too long.
Only in the second half did I begin to realise that I was caring for the characters, that all the rushing about had been creating a reality that was now taking on the depth and texture that we call Shakespearean. Perhaps cast and director could have done it earlier, but they got there.
As the heroine, Jodie McNee has some trouble with direction that makes her assertive one moment and self-abasingly submissive the next, but she shows us the human being beneath those contradictions and makes us wish the character well.
Tom Hiddleston has fun doubling as both the stalwart-if-flawed hero and the dim-witted villain, creating two very different but recognisable types. (There's also a smart villain, to whom Guy Flanagan oddly gives the voice, accent and mannerisms of a Borsht Belt comedian.)
I could argue against some of the incidental things - the chorus line of court gentlemen unceasingly rearranging themselves in pretty pictures, the wicked witch stepmother, the tendency to station actors at opposite sides of the wide Barbican stage so they have to shout to each other or scurry back and forth.
But what matters is that, if you are patient while plot and characters are being established in the first half, you will be caught up in a real, moving and rewarding experience.
The extraordinarily inventive and delightful Kneehigh Theatre has another triumph.
The Cornish company that brought us the memorable Tristan and Yseult a couple of years back now takes on one of Shakespeare's oddest plays, and with their unique combination of imagination, physicality, wit and sensitivity, bring it to the stage with a vitality the RSC could envy.
Cymbeline's story is so convoluted as to defy summary, with a seemingly unending string of plots and counterplots, mistaken identities and coincidences. Even the finest straight production is likely to leave the audience giggling at some of its unlikely twists.
Kneehigh, through this free adaptation by director Emma Rice and Carl Grose, don't try to paper over the play's sillier moments, but embrace them by treating much of it as pure comedy.
But so sensitive is their understanding that, even though only the occasional line from Shakespeare's text survives, the spirit of the play comes through fully, in Shakespeare's reassurance that, although humans almost always screw things up through misunderstandings or leaping to conclusions, a loving providence will juggle any number of improbabilities to make everything work out as it should.
From the opening, in which a Panto Dame wanders onstage to help lay out the convoluted back story, through the modern dress that turns King Cymbeline into an East End hardman and his evil queen into a soap opera tart, to the open embracing of groaner jokes (like the confusion of trumpet and strumpet), this is a production that announces that it is not overawed by Shakespeare.
And yet the production understands Shakespeare and respects him, and one of its glories is that, even in mid-joke, we sense the play's serious and moving power.
Take, for example, the early scene in which the hero is banished and must flee to Rome. He's put in a toy boat, with seagulls hanging from his hat, and we laugh, but as he shuffles across the stage we also feel his pain.
And when Rome turns out to be a Dolce Vita world with the villain a playboy with a whore on each arm, it's both a good joke and a strong image of how out-of-his-depth the good guy is getting.
And so on, throughout the play - a male servant in Shakespeare becomes a comically lovesick maid, and her yearnings echo the more serious unhappiness of the heroine. That heroine's need for a disguise is effected through a meeting with a tramp with transvestite leanings, and the joke doesn't interfere with the tension of the moment. Everything is accompanied by a jazz-flavoured music score by Stu Barker that alternately lightens and deepens the emotional tone.
In short, you laugh at exactly the places Shakespeare would want you to laugh (and perhaps a few others), are excited where he wants the tension to be high, are moved where he wants you to be moved, and rejoice in the happy ending as he would want you to.
Though few of the words are his, and the road to each of those points may differ, the play gets there in the end - at least as well, and far more entertainingly and imaginatively than any straight production.
With the cast doubling and tripling roles, you'll be most moved or entertained by Mike Shepherd's Cymbeline, Hayley Carmichael's Imogen and Kirsty Woodward's Pisanio - though everyone else, along with director Emma Rice and designer Michael Vale, deserves equal cheers.
This is popular and accessible theatre at its best - not only good fun, but possibly the best Cymbeline you're ever likely to see.
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Review - Cymbeline - 2005-2007