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FringeReview UK 2016


Royal Shakespeare Company

Genre: Classical and Shakespeare, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, Theatre

Venue: RSC Barbican


Low Down

In Melly Still’s production, Cymbeline now transferred to the Barbican aided by a blasted landscape designed by Anna Fleischle, Cymbeline’s specifically a Britain gone retrograde, aided by Philip Gladwell’s lighting. It’s clear Cymbeline strikes near-identical chord sequences over a hyped national anxiety. David Price provides evocative music, most of all in the lyric core of this romance, the home-tapped Dirge. Still’s RSC has set trends.


Melly Still’s RSC Cymbeline now at the Barbican has set trends. She beat Matthew Dunster to it with some identical gender switches separately conceived, and both directors seized on a troubled proto-post-Brexit Britain (the proto now dropped) though in Still’s production, aided by a blasted landscape designed by Anna Fleischle – often aided by Philip Gladwell’s tenebrous tree-shafted lighting – it’s specifically a Britain gone retrograde, whilst a decadent Rome‘s sophisticated; all lit up with electrics as the scenes there declare. It’s clear Cymbeline strikes near-identical chord sequences over a hyped national anxiety. David Price provides evocative music, most of all in the lyric core of this romance, the home-tapped Dirge.


Into this conflated 50 BC (and 1610 Rome) Shakespeare hewed out an icy magical narrative like the one the heroine Innogen takes for herself on an illusory reunion with her banished husband Posthumous who, too credulously believing the false evidence of Roman Iachimo has ordered her death at his servant Pisanio’s hands (as with the Globe, she’s now Pisania). ‘Lowly’ Posthumous is banished for marrying Innogen, her being the daughter of the eponymous Briton King Cymbeline, now a woman and the better for it, whilst the Queen becomes the plausibly smooth poisoning Duke – whose clottish cloven son Cloten is the intended spouse.


Some things are richly skew. Cloten for instance in Marcus Griffith’s delivery is impressive, scouring his defiance in visible letters as a UKIP-defiant Brexiteer. ‘Britain’s a world by itself and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses’ he hurls defiance at the Roman consul, later general Caius Lucius (nobly restrained and decent Eke Chukwu). His sexual torturing of Pisania (Kelly Williams frighteningly vulnerable here, as she’s steadfast elsewhere) allows us to despise him as a formidable psychopath rather than mere trash. In some ways, not simply height but vocal clarity, he rather cows Hiran Abeysekera’s Posthumous, a truly fine study in guilt, and savage remorse, but here taken by a brilliantly mercurial temperament – one for quick wit and dispatch rather than pure heroic mould, though he shows mettle in the battle scenes. Abeysekera’s not more whelp than lion, to take that riddle delivered by divine intervention, but still boyish. His interaction with Bethan Cullinane’s Innogen is however tender, less playful than some, played for emotional depth.


Cullinane is indeed the lodestar, as she has to be, though Gillian Bevan’s conflicted Cymbeline runs her close, in her one-hundred-year-old grain-sacking cloth with conflicted emotions over Innogen; and that gap in her life, her two kidnapped children. That gnaws at least as profoundly as her better nature suggesting she’s better inside the Roman Empire than outside it. Eerily familiar in 2016, it’s been an identity always pulsing in and out of relevance. Bevan’s great scenes come with the end where she ceases to be the late-flowering noble king (and there have been two fine male Cymbelines recently, on the play’s original terms): she becomes something more than a cipher for Britain, but a lightning rod for the play’s riven heart.


Cullinan’s Innogen is passionate. You don’t believe Posthumous reporting her sexual reticence here, and it’s one thing that’s dated for us, as she leaps into his arms or opens herself for a parting quickie rudely interrupted. The important passion comes however in that key moment learning that Posthumous believes her unfaithful indeed orders her death, which Pisania foils, diverting her to Milford Haven as planned but suggesting she hook up with the invading Roman army, in boy servant garb.


This icy trek of Innogen is quasi-martyrological, a winter journey such as Gawain takes, loaded with symbolism, and yet besprent by flowers of several kinds – rather belying the blasted landscape of this production, even if there’s a park-like tree – as in the Joni Mitchell song. The others turn out to be her long lost siblings, Aviragus’s sparky James Cooney and the eldest child now a daughter Guideria, Natalie Simpson. Simpson’s excellent, spunky and belike to behead a man as she does cheerfully. She’s in fact the heir in matrilineal succession. The original brothers’ tenderness for their unsuspected sister is skewed a little, though surprisingly little, and their dirge is magical.


Innogen’s violent communion with Cloten’s headless corpse dressed as Posthumous gives Cullinane another opportunity to shudder out her feelings and it’s not grotesque the disagreeables evaporate in her transcendent keening.


Graham Turner’s Belarius, the lord who grumpily kidnapped the siblings on being denounced, is an oaken-sounding soldier, though he doesn’t pretend to have donned any Welshness with his assumption of ‘Morgan’.


Two Romans are particularly convincing. Oliver Johnstone’s Iachimo is a more plausible attractively predatory jack-in-the-box than his name normally incarnates. His penitence too is finely wrought from the battle onwards. Byron Mondahl’s fruity darkness as Philario seems almost wasted. As wise counsel to heedless Posthumous, he’s a superb cameo, as are Cornelia the poison-swerving doctor Doreene Blackstock replete with comic timing; Jenny Fennessy’s gentlewoman sheds clarity, and Temi Wilkey’s finally-voiced Philharmonia, a soothsayer who hangs in silence then whips up an interpretation like a star astrologer on Strictly.


The marvellous conclusion is however the thing. It’s preceded by Posthumous’s dream, which doesn’t convince me it’s a manifestation of the unconscious as suggested. As he descends and speaks Jupiter for himself, it’s the god that seems to speak through him. Spectacle and words themselves are too powerful for such ordinary rationales.


The unfolding of the final scene’s twists are patiently, beautifully wrought. Cullinane’s final overwhelming reunion with Posthumous, initially nearly fatal, is explosive and again stills any titters at improbability. It’s a great scene, and has to be acted at full tilt. A little comedy from Blackstock’s Cornelia is as much comedy as it can take. Bevan’s swiftly-dispatched grief for the Duke (James Clyde is wonderfully oily, even donnishly so) evaporates in her shuddering joy at her own reunited family. It mirrors what will at least be a peace of around four centuries. It’s redefined the title role. There were magical collisions and calms in the Globe’s heavily-pruned, more uneven Imogen. Still, charged with its own magic this is perhaps the best and mostly-uncut Cymbeline we can hope for till our nerves settle; but then again Cymbeline’s a state-of-the-nation vehicle, and has come again into its own.