Rarely performed until recently, Cymbeline is a patchy proposition for play which feels like it can’t get a handle on itself, let alone the rest of us. A bit Lear, a bit star-crossed lovers, a bit crossdressing mayhem, it never quite does anything you might want it to. What’s also true is that these outriders in the traditional hierarchy of Shakespeare’s plays always find their moment to come roaring to the front the pack.
This year has netted three Cymbelines: Sam Yates’s in the Wanamaker, Matthew Dunster’s renamed and reclaimed Imogen at the The Globe and this RSC gender-tweaked affair. The sudden attraction of Cymbeline is obvious – it lingers a little on Britain’s problematic island identity, and tackles the merits and miseries of throwing off the shackles of the Roman Empire.
Melly Still’s production ramps things up to full-blown post-Brexit Britain. Cymbeline, here played as queen rather than king by Gillian Bevan, rules as a tyrant over her daughter, Innogen, egged on by her vindictive-yet-appealing second husband The Duke (James Clyde) and over her country (or what’s left of it) in this dystopian future Britain. A grey gloom has fallen over the green and pleasant land.
This future Britain is brought to life on Anna Fleischle’s set with Banksy-like graffiti (‘Remember how it was’, ‘This used to be trees’, ‘Free the people’) and a rare tree stump encased in a glass box. A Britain overcome by hate is bleak and dull and stifling. Fashion has also taken a tragic turn towards a mix of peasant chic and early 90s pop bands, all denim and fabric patchwork (think Britney-Timberlake in their matching denim outfits and you’re on track). Brexit truly is a terrifying prospect.
In contrast, the Italian court that Cymbeline’s exiled son-in-law, the thoroughly irritating Posthumous (Hiran Abeysekera), heads is a stylish vision of decadence with nattily dressed courtiers buzzing around the swarthy and compelling Iachimo (Oliver Johnstone). It’s all classical sculptures gone party crazy with neon halos. I know where I’d rather be – and that’s just what the production wants you to feel. But as a Brexit/Europe analogy the whole thing doesn’t quite land when we’re left with Cymbeline resubmitting to the power of the conquering Roman Empire, which, unless you’re a crazy Brexitter, isn’t quite the same thing as joining or leaving the EU, or just quite liking the idea of being part of Europe. It all feels a little undercooked and uncomfortable, which isn’t helped by the fact the play does little to explore the ideas about freedom and identity it raises, and the island stuff is contained to a few lines in a few scenes.
The production does much, however, to try to breath multiculturalism and modernity into the piece – we get a cheesy 70s-style boy band number from Cloten, a few song-and-dance numbers and even a smattering of other languages with Shakespeare’s text projected onto the walls forcing us monoglot islanders to read surtitles. Oh, the irony.
If some elements don’t quite land, there’s still a lot to like about Cymbeline. Much has been done to dust off the dubious sexual politics. The Duke, who seems immune from the nasty 90s dress code, is played as a fully paid up cardigan-wearing 1950s middle Englander – a gent of calculatingly vicious self-interest. He’s a masterstroke. The always problematic pact between Posthumus and Iachimo (really, what new spouse would do that; let alone one we’re told is a prince among men?) bravely refuses the good/bad dichotomy. Posthumous’s arrogance and ambivalence is at the fore, while Iachimo is pulled into a better a light as he resists and is tormented by his baser urges around the sleeping Innogen. The switching of Pisaro to Pisania, Cymbeline to a queen and her lost son to a daughter does little to force a new reading of the play, a fact which is pleasing in itself. They are largely non-sexualised roles and utterly uncontroversial – a fact I would challenge even the biggest gender dinosaur to argue against. Cloten is dialled down to a spoilt brat, given motivation and even a foolish charm – he really is as handsome as Posthumous – rather than the full-on buffoon we usually see. With a shadow of victimhood about him, he’s a much more interesting affair.
And there are winning performances all round. It’s impossible not to be gripped by Oliver Johnstone’s Iachimo’s every move, from his initial smarmy-sexy-cool, chewing up the verse was masculine energy, to the heroic, passionate soldier he mutates into. Kelly Williams’ Pisania and Natalie Simpson’s Guideria are highly watchable and effortless. As part of a production that threatens to catch fire at several points but never quite does, they offer a glimpse of what might have been. Yet ultimately this Cymbeline remains a lobscouse of ideas which never comes together to make anything truly tasty.
Cymbeline is on at the Barbican until 17th December 2016. Click here for more details.