The Theatreguide.London Reviews
Open Air 2005 - Cheek By Jowl 2007 - Kneehigh 2007 - Shakespeare's Globe 2015 - RSC 2016
Open Air Theatre Summer 2005
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.
Barbican Theatre Summer 2007
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.
Lyric Hammersmith Theatre 2007
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.
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.
Barbican Theatre November-December 2016
One of Shakespeare's most difficult (and therefore lest often revived) plays is made clear, moving and, above all, theatrically alive in this entertaining and engrossing RSC production, brought to London after a Stratford run.
Part of Shakespeare's final period of play-making, when he evidently felt free to pay even less attention to the rules and conventions than he ever had, Cymbeline has a convoluted and episodic structure, with an overabundance of plots, counterplots, subplots and digressions – the final scene infamously contains about thirty revelations, confessions and explanations in a row, in a rush to tie up loose ends.
But at its centre is the story of a loving couple who are separated, each to undergo a string of misadventures complicated by the attempts of others to harm them, until – no real spoiler alert here – finally being reunited.
Director Melly Still and her cast make sense of this, and give the play an emotional core, by realising that Cymbeline is, like many other Shakespeare plays, the story of growing up.
The lovers Innogen and Posthumus ( Bethan Cullinane and Hiran Abeysekera, both excellent in taking their characters through subtle changes) are introduced as avatars of Juliet and Romeo, caught up in the overwhelming passions of adolescent love.
Their separate adventures and experiences are then presented as a testing and maturing process, making them ready for a more adult love and worthy of each other and of the prize withheld from them before, a happy ending.
And this works. When Posthumus is taunted by a villain with slurs on his lady's honour and then conned into believing the invented evidence against her, we see the hotheaded youth falling into the trap of feeling without thinking.
When the machinations of another villain (there are three or four of them, each with different agendas) force Innogen to escape, there is a hint of a girl's-own-adventure in her running off to the wilds of Wales.
And everyone who encounters either of them, even in disguise, recognises something special and attractive in them, so that those who don't try to kill them try to help them.
By keeping our eye and our sympathies on the two leads, director Still not only guides us through the play's plot convolutions but lets us see each step forward each one takes in the process of maturing.
She also gives the play as clear a narrative spine and forward movement as I can imagine any director achieving.
The all-but-full text runs well over three hours, as we have come to expect from the RSC, but it holds our attention with a clarity and energy level that rarely flag.
Of course it doesn't all work. Director Still and designer Anna Fleischle can't resist a little messing-about with Shakespeare.
In place of Roman Britain, the play is set in a dystopic future with some silly touches about it – a minor villain's attempt to serenade Innogen is a choreographed Temptations-style Motown trio, and imperial Rome, setting for a couple of key scenes, is imagined as the VIP room in a gay disco.
The titular King Cymbeline is now the Queen and a few other characters undergo gender reassignments, while any scene that lends itself to the treatment is played in a vaguely appropriate foreign language, with surtitles.
Fortunately none of these changes has any real effect, for good or bad, on the play, and you can dismiss them as the kind of harmless fiddling that allows a director to think she's doing something.
Melly Still is doing something, in finding and communicating the narrative spine and emotional core of the play, and in guiding her cast in bringing that out and never losing touch with it.
And it is that, and not the messing-about with Shakespeare, that makes this Cymbeline such a success.
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