Saturday, 5 November 2016

Review Cymbeline

by William Shakespeare

Swan's Way

Once upon a time TLT remembers watching a BBC children's serial The Changes where suddenly nearly everyone in the British Isles turns violently against technology and goes back to medieval village way of life. Meanwhile mainland Europe remains unchanged.

This emerged from the muddy depths of memory while watching the Royal Shakespeare Company's Cymbeline where the Britons live in a twilight post apocalyptic candle-lit world.

Meanwhile over on the continent ... Yes, the Romans host an electric international court with an  multilingual casino lifestyle where the courtiers swan around in luxury designer brands, confident that Latin remains the language of diplomacy.

The programme posits the Britons paying tribute to the Roman Empire as a Brexit fantasy (it was first performed in Stratford-upon-Avon before the referendum), although the parallels feel a little strained in Melly Still's whirlwind gender-swapping production. 

Innogen (Bethan Cullinane) is a tough but still emotionally vulnerable young princess, first seen with a ragged skirt of downy swan feathers, picking up on lines in the play, "Hath Britain all the sun that shines?Day? Night?/Are they not but in Britain? In th' world's volume/Our Britain seems as of it, but not in'it:/In a great pool a swan's nest"

She defies her statuesque Boadicea of a mother, Queen Cymbeline (Geraldine Bevan), to marry her childhood sweetheart Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera) but their newly married life quickly goes awry when Posthumus is banished and then ends up in Rome.

With its unstable mix of genres and self conscious narrating-the-story style, there's no doubt Cymbeline is a challenge and there are plenty of strengths in individual performances in this production.

Cullinane makes a sturdily attractive Innogen, tenacious and resilient but still fragile enough to make us care in female garb and disguised as a boy. 

The slighter figure of Abeysekera, her lover, then husband who is easily persuaded in a wager that she is an unfaithful wife is more problematic.

He's a bit of a soft puppy dog at the beginning but his final brief scene with treacherous Iachimo does make for a natural and intuitive sense of an ending to that side of the story.

Changing the sex of Cymbeline and that of her consort who becomes "The Duke" (James Clyde) brings a new dynamic to relationships. Out goes the wicked stepmother trope and The Duke (James Clyde) is a rather too subtle, modern brown-suited villain with leather patches on his elbows.

More successful is Italian nobleman Iachimo (Oliver Johnstone) who as a villainous devil steals all the best tunes bringing lusty swagger and humour before his come-uppance.

A word too for the Posthumus's gender-swapped servant Pisania (Kelly Williams), acting as her master's secret agent at the British court who also brings clarity to the plot.

The trouble is chunks of the story get lost in the low-light opening scenes - it's hard for newcomers to the story to grasp, even with flashed up projections of newspapers, that two of the Queen's children were kidnapped as babies or even that the doltish would-be pop star Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) is The Duke's son from an earlier marriage.

Even so, the soundscape from composer Dave Price does bring visceral ripples as the plot unravels. Over in Wales, a nobleman banished unjustly many years earlier from the Queen's court, Belarius (Graham Turner in a solid performance) is living in the wilds with the Queen's children, in this version a girl and a boy rather than two boys, who know nothing of their Royal birth.

Turned into a pair of Peter Pan-like Lost Children, despite a famously gory outbreak of violence, the two (Natalie Simpson and James Cooney) make an engaging bow-and-arrow pair. Altogether, this is a curate's egg of a production which feels a tad long but it's an amber light for this awfully big adventure.

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