August 2, 2016, by Peter Kirwan

Cymbeline (RSC) @ The Royal Shakespeare Theatre

A couple of months ago, before the UK jumped the proverbial shark in the EU referendum, a line from Cymbeline was doing the rounds on social media as Brexiteers leapt on Shakespeare’s comment that

Britain is
A world by itself; and we will nothing pay
For wearing our own noses.

Deploying the time-honoured logic of ‘If Shakespeare said it, it must be true’, the quotation was appropriated in the service of the Leave campaign as a patriotic assertion of independence. That the line is, of course, spoken by a man so idiotic that his very name is ‘Cloten’, and in the context of a play that ultimately kills off all members of its own Brexit team and agrees to keep paying tribute to Europe, went somewhat over the quoters’ heads.

Melly Still, making her directorial debut at the RSC, took on the political moment with a directness pleasing to see in the main house, where conservatism can still hold sway (or at the least be read so, as I complained in my review of Henry V last year). It was also one of those rare productions that dared to try a setting in the future. Still and designer Anna Fleischle imagined a post-Brexit, and post-apocalyptic, world where Britain’s tree roots were stuffed with plastic bags and the walls covered in angry graffiti; where costumes were upcycled and warlords ruled by force. The clarity of this setting was somewhat confused by a simultaneous pastness; the use of hand percussion, machetes, creepers and commando-style fatigues for the British, contrasted with the berets and smart uniforms of the Romans, evoked for me images of French colonial Africa. At times the production’s wealth of ideas and references threatened to overwhelm an already complex play, but the fragmentation of a country at odds with its own past and future seemed depressingly prescient.

The production began with Gillian Bevan’s Queen Cymbeline watching grainy footage of her two lost children, setting up concern with family that pervaded the production without committing to a dominant theme. Presiding over a world gone to seed, and wearing what looked like a tattered dressing gown for much of the opening half, Bevan combined strength and weariness, allowing her emotion to show but acting with implacable fury when banishing Posthumus or with calm confidence when facing the Romans. James Clyde played her Duke as a smarmy, eloquent companion, with licence to act for her but a knowing public subservience. I was less convinced by the re-gendering of the Queen; not only might it have been more interesting to see two women handle this dynamic, but it also had the effect during the early confrontations with the Roman of sidelining women entirely as the Duke and Cloten led the country’s defiance while Cymbeline stood aloft, smiling. But the re-gendering did contribute to licensing a reading of the royal couple that moved away from emasculated, feeble male ruler and brash evil queen to something more complex and interesting. Cymbeline was stronger than I have ever seen her/him, and the character’s early quietness was here read as power rather than passivity; her rule was absolute, and the Duke’s public acts were all performed with her nodding approval.

The conflict between different kinds of authority in this semi-lawless world led to some arresting images. Central to the set was a tree stump protected by a glass box; this box became an execution block on which several characters were threatened (only Cloten, of course, actually lost his head, allowing Natalie Simpson as Guideria to play with the most convincing dummy head I’ve yet seen at the RSC). The battle towards the end was staged as a set of chaotic images: Posthumus wearing a tutu and wielding a weapon with his face covered; Cymbeline surrounded by soldiers and having her combat trousers pulled down while a bag was put over her head; a fight between Posthumus and Iachimo that ended with Posthumus throwing down a rock that he almost used to crush his enemy’s skull. The implied violence of this world was belied by the lovely touch of two servants giving Caius Lucius’s entourage tea and digestives while the leaders traded verbal blows. Adding to a sense of confusion was the constant presence of Temi Wilkey’s Philharmonia, the soothsayer, who hovered at the sides of the stage watching all the action. I confess to being unclear on the intentions here, but one rather mundane outcome was that her skill in interpreting Posthumus’s dream came from being the only character who’d seen everything.

Last night’s performance saw understudy Romayne Andrews step into the role of Posthumus, causing some shuffling about in the minor roles as well. To the cast’s great credit, the changes were barely noticeable, and Andrews in particular shone as a passionate, angry and energetic young lover. Posthumus was small and wiry (a point made when Marcus Griffiths, a very tall Cloten, put on Posthumus’s comically too-small clothes, even if this joke came at the expense of logical clarity around Innogen’s mistaking of the bodies), and had an everyman quality that rendered him a powerful access point for much of the play’s action. While his behaviour towards Innogen was inexcusable, Andrews particularly stood out in the slow collapse of his dreams and hopes under Iachimo’s (Oliver Johnstone) perfectly judged explanation of his successful wooing of Innogen; as Posthumus collapsed against the back wall, and even Byron Mondahl’s camp and optimistic Philario let his face fall, the scale of the grief was clear. Posthumus entered a self-destruct mode for much of the play, his adoption of bizarre costume reminiscent here of Lear’s Edgar. Most affecting was his mixture of grief, humiliation, relief and despair on seeing Innogen alive; I don’t recall if the text was rejigged here, but their embrace was forceful and his contrition palpable.

Bethan Cullinane was first seen twirling in a tutu as Innogen, left isolated on the glass box in the centre while courtiers called for the missing older siblings. This aside, she didn’t play as a child, and presented herself with an authority and confidence that emphasised a more mature sexuality – as rather crudely made explicit when Cymbeline interrupted Posthumus and Innogen about to have sex. Much was made of Innogen wearing revealing underwear while preparing for bed, and Iachimo both staring at her and more performatively averting his eyes. When she slept, Iachimo entered from the crate topless and sat astride her to kiss her; the emphasis here was on Innogen as a sexual(ised) being in opposition to the memories of the abandoned children. Guideria and Arviragus (James Cooney) had an extremely physical, chaste relationship with one another and with their surrogate father (Graham Turner), evoking some of the most paradigmatic post-apocalyptic YA fantasies as they ululated, hunted with bows and arrows, and tempted Cloten to his death with laughter and disappearing behind trees.

The sexualised aspect was key also to Cloten’s character. With open shirt and a confident charm, he was played as in some respects attractive, but his privileged world-view (particularly, perhaps, as the licensed stepson in a female-led court) led to heinous acts. In ‘wooing’ Pisania (Kelly Williams, in fatigues and short bleached hair) to his cause, he first threw her onto her back and then reached his hand into her trousers, using his height and strength to overpower her. His song, evoking Boyz II Men for me (others may have more precise pop references….) with two backing singers, was a moment of lighter relief, but his preening and jumping about made clear what Innogen was having to put up with, and the way in which he grabbed a female servant to force his way into Innogen’s room made clear the casual sexism of a privileged class that sees women as objects and obstacles. In eschewing a more obvious unattractiveness for Cloten, the production tackled a less visible but more pressing and embedded form of aggression against women.

As Innogen transitioned into Fidele, she cut a convincingly boyish figure with shoulder-length hair and an earnest desire for affection; while she was initially surprised by the enthusiasm of Guideria’s hug (that cut off the burgeoning lustful expression of Arviragus), she blended with the Welsh folk easily. For these scenes, the tree trunk rose to the heavens, bringing a substantial portion of the stage with it and trailing creepers over a pit with a hatch that functioned as Belarius’s shelter. This pit became a locus for violent and extraordinary behaviour, including the arrests and kidnapping of the Roman wars.

Exaggerating the European aspect of the play, the Italian scenes were colourful, characterised by sculptures and brightly lit backdrops. In Italy, the characters spoke in Latin, French and Italian. The cosmopolitan aspect of this, in opposition to the English of parochial Britain, was certainly interesting, though in practice it became frustrating as the neon projected subtitles were not universally visible – and the use of speech prefixes suggested perhaps that a secondary aim was an excuse to help clarify characters for an audience perhaps unfamiliar with the play. More successful were the confrontations with the Romans in England, where the language clash became part of the power game, as Cymbeline spoke Latin to them initially but then pulled them into an English idiom.

There were so many ideas here that several were bound not to stick. When characters spoke in soliloquy, or even referred to another character, everyone else on stage entered slow motion, even if only for a couple of seconds. Not only was this inconsistently applied, but the fragmentation of movement in the scenes looked ridiculous and made moments where action needs to be happening among non-speaking scenes (e.g. Cymbeline and Innogen talking during the final scene) nonsensical. The constant presence of the soothsayer gestured at a spiritual aspect that was under-explored, and the entirely bizarre ghosts/Jupiter scene saw cut-out paper dolls, some apparently with caesarean scars or missing limbs, animated by actors while the whole company spoke in chorus. The jumble sale aesthetic seemed to licence an interpretive inconsistency, when some more coherence would perhaps have been welcome.

However, despite the extraordinary length of the performance (3 and a half hours) and the inconsistent commitment to several of the ideas, this was a Cymbeline with much to enjoy. The more obvious innovations – the future setting, the cross-gender casting – weren’t just superficial but opened up lesser explored possibilities for this play, and the marriage of a political disunity narrative to a familial quest to be reunited made sense for a post-Brexit climate. And while the endings went on forever, the power of Posthumus and Innogen’s closing embrace felt earned.

Posted in Theatre review