September 21, 2006, by Peter Kirwan

Cymbeline (Kneehigh) @ The Swan Theatre

Without beating around the bush, this production was simply breathtaking, one of the most complete pieces of theatre I’ve seen in a long time, and the perfect antidote to the sober and dull ‘Measure For Measure’ of last week. I’ve seen a lot of Kneehigh Theatre’s work in the past, but this was without the best I’ve seen so far, and one of the highlights of the Complete Works Festival too.

Out went Shakespeare’s text, to be replaced by a new and vibrant modern-language text by the company. Kneehigh’s approach is an ensemble one, heavily rooted in music, physicality, direct storytelling and a wicked sense of humour, and they cut straight to the heart of the text.

It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and Act One saw the most walkouts I’ve noticed yet for any production. If you’re not expecting it, an Italy filled with drag queens and loud dance music, an introductory exposition from an elderly housewife called Joan and a singer dressed as a chav bellowing from the balcony can be quite intimidating.

Where this production scored most highly was in the detail. A remote controlled car (which features prominently on the promotional poster) delivered the post; men in anoraks watched the unfolding action with massive hand-held spotlights; the Queen carried a box of medication around with her at all times with which she influenced her men. In terms of visual interest, there was never a dull moment.

Larger set-pieces included an extended wordless opening, with flowers, photographs and teddies pinned up to the set in rememberance of Cymbeline’s kidnapped children, a war which focused on a massive board game around which Cymbeline moved his troops and blew things up, a beautiful song in mourning for the two ‘dead’ bodies and a spectacularly choreographed wooing and bedroom scene where Imogen and Iachimo moved around each other in a slow yet amazingly fluid dance.

Elsewhere, there were fantastic character moments- the Queen and Cloten shared a few shiveringly inappropriate moments, Imogen’s cries of “Where’s his head?” moved from the funny to the unbearably tragic, Cymbeline shook off the Queen and donned his suit in preparation for war and Pisanio – here a maid – fell for Iachimo and killed a (puppet) deer brutally onstage.

This was about the ensemble and the finished piece rather than any individual performance, though. Kneehigh are storytellers, and this production entertained, moved, enthralled and made a difficult and little-known play one of the most exciting productions of the year. Truly special.

Posted in Theatre review