By William Shakespeare
Directed by Melly Still
Designed by Anna Fleischle
Music by Dave Price
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Saturday 28th May 2016, 13.15
Productions so often come in threes. Last year it was The Merchant of Venice. Now Cymbeline has three major productions in a year, starting with the confused over-larky Sam Wanamaker Playhouse production at the end of 2015 / start of 2016. Next up is the RSC, and they’ve changed King Cymbeline to Queen Cymbeline. Third in the row will be The Globe who have renamed it Imogen on the reasonable grounds that Imogen / Innogen is obviously the main character. The RSC programme makes the point very clearly that both surviving 17th century references are to INNOGEN (building from “innocent”) and that Imogen was not used as a name in 1609.
It’s The Globe that make a fuss about moving to 50 / 50 female casting, though the RSC seems to be well ahead of them already. King Cymbeline becomes Queen Cymbeline. Innogen’s servent Pisanio becomes the butch-hairstyled Pisania. The oldest son, kidnapped by Belarius, shifts from Guiderio to a daughter, Guideria. And she’s the heir as the older child too, as is now the law on succession. Doctor Cornelius becomes Doctor Cornelia. Philharmonio the soothsayer becomes Philharmonia. Lots of soldiers become female. I was suspicious, fearing PC dictation forcing the plot, but happily all of them worked perfectly. The shifts were justified. The wicked stepmother becomes The Duke, the Queen’s male consort. The Duke being what we call the Queen’s male consort now.
By the number of Black / Afro-Caribbean actors, I half-expected colour coding … perhaps white for the Ancient Brits, black for the Romans, even if in a tale of early colonialism, it would be more appropriate the other way round. But no, it’s simply in repertory with the all-black Hamlet and those are the people booked for the season.
The play is shifted to a dystopian future Britain, and the programme has an essay on why this is a post-Brexit Britain. It’s shabby, graffiti-covered. Everyone’s costume is upcycled … some kind of patchwork. Even the Duke’s waistcoat is two waistcoats stitched together. In the play, Britain is supposed to pay an annual tribute to Rome, which is I guess now a kind of post-EU fine or compensation for exiting or Britexiting. It’s still only £3000 a year, not some hysterical Gove, Farage & Johnston 500 billion pounds a day to Europe. Rome has a photographic backdrop of the Forum, and a statue of the Madonna with a neon-lit halo. Everyone in Rome is dressed super sharply, grooving at a cocktail party to the beats, at one point snorting cocaine. In Rome, in an innovation, people are speaking Shakespeare’s lines in Italian and French with projected sur-titles carrying the English version. There’s apparently a Dutchman and a Spaniard there as well, though I don’t know which ones they were, though one spoke amusingly English (or probably Dutch) accented Italian. This is the EU then. I guess it was the Treaty of Rome, and moving it to Brussels or Strasbourg would have pushed the text too far.
Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) and The Duke (James Clyde)
Cymbeline is not that well-known, so a quick synopsis. Cymbeline has remarried, to the scheming Duke. She had three children by her first marriage, but the first two were kidnapped as babies and never seen again … in a pre-show, we see film of children playing and one has a distinctive top with a red dragon. Her third child, her daughter, Innogen, has secretly married a Roman lad, Posthumus Leonatus. The royal pair are furious, wanting to betroth her to the Duke’s son, her step-brother, Cloten. Posthumus is banished, back to Rome. Innogen is heartbroken, left only with a bracelet as a memento.
Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera) and Innogen (Bethan Cullinane)
In Rome, Posthumus encounters Iachimo, a rich Italian nobleman. They get into a boasting match, with Posthumus boasting of Innogen’s total fidelity. Iachimo bets him that he can make love to her. Iachimo sets off to Britain … I typed England first, but Shakespeare, as in King Lear, definitely chose “Britain” celebrating James I as king of both England and Scotland. There are tales that Cymbeline was performed at the investiture of the Prince of Wales in addition. So Britain. When Iachimo arrives he tries to seduce Innogen with tales of Posthumus’s wild debauchery in Rome. He suggests she could get revenge by sleeping with him. She declines, so he asks her to take care of a chest of plate destined for the Emperor, and she agrees to keep it in her chamber. He conceals himself in the chest, and gets out while she is sleeping. He notes detail of her bedchamber, slips the bracelet from her wrist and peeps under the covers, thus seeing a mole on the underside of her breast. This is a memorable and creepy scene, and in this production taken brilliantly by Oliver Johnstone as Iachimo.
Things move on apace. We’re back in Rome when he reveals all his knowledge as proof that’s slept with her … again, a powerful scene with both Johnstone and Hiran Abeysekera as Posthumus on top form. Posthumus joins the Roman arm which means a cropped haircut (wig removal is a bold choice actually, because he looks so different).
Innogen has decided to go off to Milford Haven where the Romans will arrive in search of Posthumus, accompanied by Pisania. As Shakesperean heroines will do at the drop of a skirt when travelling in wild countryside, she is advised to disguise herself as a boy (Fidelio).
Pisania has been given a drug by the Duke, and told it’s an efficacious tonic. Sanatogen or Multi-Vits perhaps. She gives it to Innogen as a defence against the naturally dank Welsh climate. The drug was commissioned by the Duke as a deadly poison, so as to remove Innogen from the line of succession. The good doctor Cornelia though has substituted the poison with a drug that makes you appear dead but … let’s just call it a Juliet Potion. Critics of the play have accused the Bard of recycling, or cobbling together past ploys. Yes, tick them off, disguise as a boy … Juliet potion …
L to R: Belarius (Graham Turner), Guideria (Natalie Simpson), Arviragus (James Cooney). Lying on ground, Innogen (dressed as the boy, Fidelio)
In Wild Wales we meet three “mountaineers” (Shakespeare had not been to Milford Haven, then). These are Morgan, and his (supposed) daughter Polydore and son Cadwal. Ah, but all is not what it seems. Morgon is Belarius, the banished lord who kidnapped Cymbeline’s kiddies twenty years earlier. Polydore is Guidera, and Cadwal is Arviragus. But they don’t know that. They’ve been brought up wild, and whoop with abandon. As at The Globe, the three have Northern English accents. Why? He’s called Morgan. He lives in Wales. The kids have been brought up in Wales, though by the crusty / traveller look of them they wouldn’t have picked up a peer group accent at primary school. Well, he was banished to Wales rather than originated there, I guess. Shakespeare had a Welsh comic actor, I’m sure, and peppered the text with “Look you” when he wanted comic Welsh, but didn’t here. I suspect someone thought that Welsh accents in Shakespeare tend to comic effect, so were best avoided. Or maybe the actors couldn’t do them. Innogen (as a boy, Fidelio) meets up with them. All are strangely moved to instant affection, none of them realizing they are siblings. Then Innogen gets a dose of flu, and remembers that bottle of Sanatogen / Multi-vitamins and so swigs it down.
Cloten (Marcus Griffiths), watched by Cymbeline & The Duke
Cloten has pursued Innogen to Wales, having the hots for her. He has forced Pisania to give him a set of Posthumus’s distinctive patchwork clothes, so that he can fool Innogen long enough to rape her. As this Cloten is around 6’3” and this Posthumus around 5’, this seems unlikely to work … and that is a great funny moment. The clothes are way too short.
Cloten runs into Polydore. They have a row, Polydore returns with Cloten’s head, and it’s an unnervingly good replica too of Marcus Griffiths, who plays Cloten. Probably the best decapitated head in a Shakespeare play, far better than the vague shape in bloody sacking King John used in Trevor Nunn’s version. They have found the apparently dead “boy” (Innogen) and lay him out. They put the headless body of Cloten next to her, intending to bury both the next day. And Cloten’s headless body is in Posthumus’s clothes, so when she wakes from the Juliet Potion …
The battle: Iachimo, front (Oliver Johnstone), Posthumus in pursuit (Hiran Abeysekera)
It’s all a bit of a rush. She joins the invading Roman army, as Fidelio, seeking death against her kinfolk. The battle starts. Posthumus has found Innogen’s bloodied ballet skirt … which er, she hasn’t worn since the very beginning (and we have no idea how it got blood spattered), and switches to the Britons, where he has a spectacular fight with Iachimo, but declines the coup de grace. Then he switches back after the Romans are defeated, hoping to be dispatched with them.
Normally Jupiter descends with prophecies to be interpreted, but here Posthumus takes the lines and descends as Jupiter, but now in his RAF blue Italian army shirt.
The resolution takes 25-30 minutes of explanations, and “Ah … so that was how …” bits, and last time I saw it, it was incredibly tedious. Here it worked superbly and maintained my interest right to the end.
Costumes and hair (like the set) are a powerful point throughout. Innogen has a ballet skirt and denim top, the architecture of Queen Cymbeline’s hair is magnificent, Pisania’s cropped sides and boyish blonde top look aggressive. When the Romans visit Britain to demand their tribute, they line up in blue uniforms, caps, and sunglasses. Caius Lucius has gleaming silken epaulettes. I loved it. It reminded me of Florence with two female police officers, in similar blue jackets and mirror sunglasses, strolling the streets. Shining hair cascaded from their caps to their waists. Their white belts gleamed, as did their boots as they sashayed through the immigrant African peddlers who were trying to pack up their Bob Marley posters and disappear on the arrival of the police (who knew their function was to stroll and be seen). Iachimo first appears in a beautiful white suit at his Roman party. It’s all perfectly envisaged. His Italian sounds fluent to me.
Innogen (Bethan Cullinane)
Bethan Cullinane took the title role of Innogen and played it sympathetically throughout. Gillian Bevan looked and acted determined and forceful, but deeply moved at the final reunion with her kids – the little dragon shirt we saw in the pre-film is produced by Belarius as ID proof. On being told of the Duke’s death, and knowing of his misdeeds now, she says dismissively “Oh, he was naught!” and got a big laugh. In contrast, the Wanamaker version had gone for a belly-laugh but saying ‘Oh, she was naughty.’ (Of course it’s a stepmother in the original). They got far fewer laughs by trying than Gillian Bevan got by playing it as writtem and phrasing it perfectly.
Iachimo (Oliver Johnstone)
Oliver Johnstone’s conniving Iachimo probably got our “person of the match award” against heavy competition from the two female leads and Marcus Griffiths’ Cloten. I think I would have cast it differently, and swopped Marcus Griffiths and Hiran Abeysekera around the other way. Why? Well, Marcus is very tall, well-built, handsome and has great hair. He also has charisma, so that when he rails against the Roman delegation with his dad and stepmum, he comes across as heroic. Cloten is supposed to be a braggart, a would-be rapist, lying and a coward. Marcus Griffiths plays it so well, but physically just doesn’t look nasty or cowardly. In an early conversation, they describe how Posthumus saw Cloten off in a threatened fight off stage. Then you look at the two of them physically, and think “No way!”
Hiran Abeysekera is both very short, and very slight. That shouldn’t diminish his sexual allure for Innogen, as after all the singers Bob Dylan and Prince did more than alright with women. Writing Little Red Corvette and singing and playing guitar brilliantly helps. The curly wig early on made him look a bit like Prince. Hiran does a wonderfully ferocious warrior on the battlefield too, his sheer fury propelling him past opponents, but nevertheless Marcus always looks like a hero, even when being bad.
I will make a personal criticism, and I’ll make it because a dialogue coach should be able to eliminate it an couple of lessons. Hiran Abeysekera has the habit of adding an emphasising semi-vowel to final consonants, so he talks about “my sword-uh” rather than “my sword.” It irritated both of us in spite of a fine acting performance. Given his deep voice and powerful rolling delivery, the effect is somewhat that of the 1950s thespian Barrington Garrick-Irving on his provincial tour in rep playing the parts of Romeo and Lear on alternate days. If you’re going to have actors adding semi-vowels after final consonants, you’d give it to the Italians! In fact, in his longer speeches later he barely did it, but anything with a strong rhyme seemed to force it. Twice.
This is a director’s version of the play with a strong signature, one so strong that Melly Still joins our list of directors who cause us to book a play. It ticks every box on set design, costume, music and theatrical events (like the floor rising to form the tendril dripping cave roof). I can’t see any of that is less than 5 star, it’s what the RSC can and do produce well. The cast are good, with several brilliantly good. I think the issue with Cymbeline is that however well it’s done, it probably can’t push past a four on the intrinsic material.
* * * *
MUSIC … by Dave Price
Three songs were so good that I bought the CD right afterwards. There’s the big production beats track in Rome (“I Am Up For It”). Then Marcus Griffiths (Cloten) and his two henchman do a 70s soul trio ballad with movements to ‘Hark hark the lark at heaven’s gate sings’, and the two wild Welsh kids do a folk song treatment to the lyric ‘Fear no more the beat o’ the sun’ (that’s the one I had to buy) with James Clooney singing lead.
SEE ALSO “CYMBELINE:
Cymbeline, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2015-16
Imogen (Shakespeare’s Cymbeline Renamed and Reclaimed) (Globe 2016)
SEE: HAMLET, RSC 2016 season
Hamlet, RSC 2016
Hiran Abeysekera (Horatio), Marcus Griffiths (Laertes), Natalie Simpson (Ophelia), James Cooney (Rosencrantz), Romayne Andrews (Osric), Bethan Cullinane (Guildenstern), Doreen Blackstock (Player queen), Eke Chukwa (Voltimand), Temi Wilkey (Player), Byron Mondahl (Professor, English ambassador)
Spring Awakening, Headlong tour 2014