June 6, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

Cymbeline (Cheek by Jowl) @ The Barbican Theatre

I love Cheek By Jowl. I’ve seen several of their productions, both English and Russian, over the last few years, and they are the company who have most consistently impressed me with their intelligent approach to classical texts, their innovative ideas and groundbreaking use of space and movement, directed by Declan Donnellan. In addition, they’re an incredibly nice bunch of people, and their willingness to get involved in student activities has been fantastic, even down to doing a three day workshop with myself and a group of other MA students right at the start of the ‘Cymbeline’ rehearsal period. There’s been something of a running joke, as when we did the workshops, the part of Cymbeline himself hadn’t yet been cast, so I played it- I am, in fact, Cheek By Jowl’s first ever Cymbeline!

I hope from this it will become immediately clear that, when I admit that I saw last night’s finished production of the play at the Barbican and was disappointed, that doesn’t mean to say it was bad. On the contrary, this was an often funny, often moving production that worked wonders with the huge Barbican stage and raised some fascinating insights into one of Shakespeare’s less performed plays.

The stage of the Barbican was stripped back to its absolute extremes, creating a cavernous space used to the full, actors disappearing almost as if off the horizon when leaving via the back exits. Temporary seating was erected, suspended in the centre of the auditorium (a la The Cube), so that the front row had their feet on the stage itself. The enormous space allowed them to create fascinating scenarios- the conversation among the men in Italy, for example, was spread to several corners of the back stage, with gaping spaces between the actors working to emphasise Posthumus’ outsider status (central, surrounded at a distance by the others) and Iachimo’s voyeuristic qualities (hovering at the back, overlooking everyone).

As the second act began, Imogen walked round the sheer boundaries of the space as Cymbeline, Cloten and Pisanio discussed her absence in the centre. Donnellan’s fluid approach to scenes worked well here, throwing up interesting juxtapositions- the evils of the queen being commented on just as she left; Posthumus remaining on stage to glare threateningly at Imogen as she read his letter; Cymbeline appearing behind his sons as Belarius explained their origins. No character was allowed to stray too far from our minds, to the point of even dramatising non-textual material, such as Imogen’s falling into a coma and Arviragus’ attempts to revive her with music (here, an old gramophone).

The other aspect of Cheek By Jowl’s work I have become familiar with over time is the often aggressively sexual performance of key scenes. In ‘Othello’, this translated to Cassio and Desdemona both lying down and groaning orgasmically as Othello imagined their adultery. Here, the often chaste relationship between Imogen and Posthumus became scarred from the start through their sexual desire for each other, the two’s parting conversation turning into foreplay as they knelt on the floor together, mouths open and almost touching, Imogen straddling Posthumus’ body (far less crude than it sounds). Later, Iachimo’s attempts to win Imogen over went as far as a lingering kiss, before she guiltily thrust him from her. Imogen was here a young woman, wrestling with her hormones and clearly desperate, quite frankly, to get laid. The closing moment of the play came as the reunited couple finally shared a passionate, Hollywood-style kiss while the rest of the cast waved to the unseen, adoring crowds.

Tom Hiddleston’s performance was particularly extraordinary. Doubling both Posthumus and Cloten, which had the effect of bringing out the similarities between the two characters as well as justifying Imogen’s confusion over the dead body. Changing between the two in stylised moments where he donned a brown overcoat, placed glasses on his face and reverentially put Imogen’s ring on his finger, turning himself back into Posthumus. As the hero he gave a twitchy performance, often sinister and very troubled, attempting to cope with his world crumbling around him. He was even better as Cloten, however- an upper class twit with two sycophantic followers laughing at his every word. Suited, arrogant and smooth, he was very funny, particularly as a mike and stand were produced for ‘Hark Hark The Lark’ and he and his supporters performed the song as if a boy band, to great comic effect.

The other performers were generally very good. Gwendonline Christie’s Queen was a highlight, towering a head taller than anyone else and being mother to all, particularly her husband, as Cymbeline buried his head in her chest in grief over the tearing apart of his family, and Cloten as she pinched him by the ear. Jodie McNee painted a compelling portrait of Imogen’s descent from red-dressed princess (and a slightly spoiled one at that, though not unpleasantly so) to young boy lost in the country. John Macmilland Daniel Percival gave a particularly bloody portrayal of the twins, glorying in Cloten’s bloody head (Arviragus wiping it over his face) and and acting as Cymbeline’s cutthroats in the final scene, and Richard Cant was engaging as a camp and flustered Pisanio. The company worked solidly as an ensemble, playing smoothly together and keeping up a good pace.

So, why did I say I was disappointed? Because there were a few key points which let the production down. Iachimo was surprisingly underused, and made very little impression in his few scenes. The key scene where Imogen discovers the body of Cloten was incredibly slow and lacked impact, and the scenes of the war, while creating an impressive tableaux of images, marked an uncomfortable and disjointed change to a storytelling narrative. This wouldn’t have perhaps been so bad, were it not for the wonderful fluidity of the first three quarters of the play, and the shift felt clumsy.

All of the above was forgivable, but what spoiled the play entirely for me was the final scene. As soon as Cymbeline announced victory and a bunch of balloons fell from the ceiling as the court conga-ed around the stage (in itself, quite funny), the play dropped the ball. A deeply irritating jaunty tune underscored the whole scene, which flipped between farcical comedy, violence, cruelty and genuinely moving moments as the revelations came thick and fast. I tried hard to ride with it, I really did, but eventually I accepted that it was a mess. Lots of nice moments strung together do not make a good scene, and the overall impact of the scene was negated by having no clear point of reference, theme or even basic emotion. While the moments themselves (in particular Hiddleston speaking Shakespeare’s greatest line, “Hang there like fruit, my soul/ Till the tree die” as Imogen wrapped herself around him like a child) were lovely, the combination of moving and funny that had served the play so well until then was upset and ruined.

It’s a difficult thing when a production ends so disappointingly after so much promise, as you end up leaving the theatre feeling negative. Yet it has to be recognised that this was a very impressive performance with many great things. However, I’m spoiled by Cheek By Jowl. ‘Three Sisters’ changed the way I look at Chekov, ‘The Changeling’ the way I think of Middleton, and ‘Twelfth Night’ was one of the greatest Shakespearean productions I’ve ever seen. This production simply didn’t change my life- which is what I’ve come to expect form the company. It had its good moments, but it had its flaws. I am, however, no less excited when I think about next year’s ‘Troilus and Cressida’.

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