April 16, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

Cymbeline (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ The Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Will Tosh’s essay in the programme for Cymbeline considers how that play – and others of this era of the King’s Men – were written to exploit the available technologies of the recently acquired Blackfriars Playhouse. It seems fitting, to that end, that Sam Yates’s production of Cymbeline itself makes flexible use of what is possible in this modern theatre. Where early productions in the SWP were lit solely by candlelight and the use of shutters to allow (or not) an impression of natural light from outside, Cymbeline made extensive use of oscillating lighting states in the corridors outside to evoke shifts of time and place. It also deployed smoke effects, flying, and two good-sized armies of Roman soldiers. It’s great to see Cymbeline given the full treatment.

The emphasis throughout was on laughs, taking the sensible and entertaining, if easiest, approach to the play’s challenges. I wasn’t aware of much cutting (though in fairness, I won’t pretend to have this play down by heart), but the company rattled through this long play in well under three hours. For comic sections this worked well; the witty interruptions of Christopher Logan’s Doctor in the final scene, the comic excesses of Calum Callaghan’s screechy Cloten as he postured and then screamed in terror when facing Arviragus, and the quick decisions taken by the Welsh outlaws all benefitted from being played at high speed as quick reactions and about-turns. The production made a compelling case for a snappy comedy being at Cymbeline’s heart.

The comedy of the production was primarily bathetic. During the descent of Pauline McLynn’s Jupiter, the gibbering Ghosts offered simpering apologies while Jupiter thundered at them, culminating in a round of ‘Sorry Jupiter’ as the god ascended; a humorous apology heard earlier by Cloten immediately before losing his head. Elsewhere, the play’s tendency to explain itself repeatedly became an easy target, especially as people repeatedly noted that the headless Cloten was, in fact, dead. This set the tone for a series of dizzying revelations at the end that mostly adopted a knowing tone, winking at the audience and enjoying the game of making everything clear.

But the production also raced, and in doing so squandered its more emotional moments. Emily Barber’s Innogen and Jonjo O’Neill’s Posthumus were the most significant casualties here. The set up of the two ‘bodies’ of Fidele and Cloten was beautifully managed, with the two boys singing a simple song and the extremely convincing headless corpse being arranged next to Innogen. But the stage image was barely set up before Innogen suddenly awoke, the outlaws not even yet offstage. Such refusal to hold an image or allow a moment of solemnity to sink in lowered the stakes too far. Similarly, the reunion of Posthumus and Innogen happened in the snap of a finger, Innogen throwing herself at her former lover and the two embracing. The production didn’t seem willing to reflect on how the adultery accusations, assassination plot or love testing might have impacted on the pair (or, for the matter, even on how Innogen was feeling after Posthumus had head-butted her as Fidele only moments earlier).

The production was more effective when it slowed down, which was inevitably for the more sordid moments. The bedroom scene was an excellent set piece, handled deftly by Eugene O’Hare as Iachimo who, although somewhat awkward in his movements owing presumably to the leg brace he was wearing, managed a well-paced scene. It started and ended rather too abruptly (the image of Iachimo emerging from a box surely deserves to be milked a little), but once out of the box, lit only by flickering candles, O’Hare let the tension of the scene build. He took his time to shine a light on Innogen and slowly lift a corner of her top to reveal her mole; he lowered himself slowly onto her to steal a kiss; he eased the bracelet off her wrist with painstaking care. The proximity of bodies and the diligence of his actions made this scene a far more effective depiction of sexual threat than the excess to which SWP productions often revert.

The obstacles to the lovers’ happiness were well drawn. Joseph Marcell was a quiet and calm Cymbeline, easily overpowered vocally by McLynn’s cackling Queen, whose joy at her own plotting resulted in a scenery-chewing villain performance in the early scenes. Cloten had a high pitch in his voice that worked extremely well for indignation, especially after being compared to a garment of Posthumus. His lurid fantasies about Innogen came across particularly effective as he slid his sword in and out of his sheath quickly while talking about his planned rape; the song that he led outside Innogen’s chamber climaxed in a repeated monotonous intonation of ‘arise arise arise arise…’. And Iachimo, completing the circle of villains, was mellifluous if oddly wandering in his movements; his quiet, lilting voice lulled both Posthumus and Innogen into a sense of false security, and the overtness of his intelligent calculation made him a fascinating, charismatic wrongdoer.

Barber was chirpy and clearly spoken as Innogen. The performance fell easily into the standard conventions of the breeches role, especially once in her short wig as Fidele, where her tone of over-eager politeness and boyish camaraderie placed her in a long line of Rosalinds and Violas. Barber was most effective in the first act in her strong and absolute resistance to Iachimo’s first advances, making her ‘no’ vocally clear as she pulled away, shouted and threatened him. O’Neill’s Posthumus showed a similar level of passion throughout, and by the time he was convinced of Innogen’s infidelity he was brimming with violence. Left alone onstage, his voice crescendoed in rage and instability. The speed of the second act left him less of an opportunity to build on this, and his despair felt a little lost amid the chaotic and crowded movements of the battle, but his violent tearing against his chains when attempting to challenge Iachimo and attacking Fidele in the final scene prevented this scene from becoming farcical.

The other performances were generally strong. The lively Doctor had more audience interaction than most, sniggering with the crowd about his success in tricking the Queen. Trevor Fox was a laconic Pisanio, his slow Newcastle accent a lovely aural counter to the brisk clip of Innogen in their scenes together. Whenever the production was in danger of galloping off, Fox managed the tricky work of arresting the pace and allowing the relationships to become clear by taking time with his lines. And the outlaws had an effective combination of light banter, laddish enthusiasm and upright sincerity. Sid Sagar and Darren Kuppan carried bows and embraced one another and Fidele repeatedly, and their readiness for killing animals or Cloten, heedless of their father’s instructions, made them a fascinating disruption to the social modes that Cloten expected. And Paul Rider distinguished himself as the dignified and kindly Roman general Caius Lucius, particularly as he offered to father Fidele in a gentle tone.

It was frustrating that the space was used in such a cluttered way. The sight of two lines of soldiers, Roman and English, on the small stage of the SWP was effective, but was only held for a moment before the armies had to enact a very crushed exit through the central door. For no obvious reason, scene transitions often involved actors entering and exiting through the central door at the same time, leading to clustering of bodies in too small a space. The auditorium exit was brilliantly used, however, for the outlaws cave, keeping this space offstage and allowing the ‘dead’ Innogen to be carried on through the audience and handed up to the stage in a lovely and affecting bit of blocking. And the descent of Jupiter, with flowing robes, amid smoke effects as the ghosts cowered below, was an extraordinary visual coup that rendered the emotional impact of the moment palpable, if not its actual sense.

While I still long to see a production in the SWP have the confidence to slow down and allow for emotional complexity, the main achievement of Yates’s production was demonstrating that a reasonably straight production of Cymbeline can be clear, funny, and fast. The atmosphere created by a gallery of cellists, a range of Celtic accents and the repeated evocation through lighting of dawns and sunsets, was rich and hinted at the mythical elements of the play. And the play finally returned to Cymbeline himself but displaced him from the centre, suggesting that the freewheeling spatial arrangements created by the onslaught of revelations actually serve to level hierarchies rather than reinforce Cymbeline’s power.

Posted in Theatre review