The exquisitely atmospheric, candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse offers a similar effect to that of entering a church at Christmas (even as a heathen who’s only there for the candles and carols). The uncomfortably authentic wooden benches resemble pews and the smell of burning candles is one of the most comforting with a touch of danger (the theatre’s health and safety team deserve all sorts of awards). One of the few Shakespeare plays that could at least to an extent be considered neglected Cymbeline calls to mind a patchwork of Shakespearean motifs pieced together in a crazy quilt, a method that was later refined in A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest.
At this time of year and in such a festive venue, the extent to which this ‘stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order’ (in George Bernard Shaw’s opinion) could be played as a Shakespearean pantomime is particularly interesting.
Finding a balance between seriousness and whimsy is ever present in productions of Shakespeare’s late plays and in Sam Yates’s admirably clear production (not easy with so many plot strands), action and comedy come first – quite an understandable line to take when dealing with such eccentric material.
On one hand, there’s attempted rape, voyeuristic lurking about in a chest, decapitation, motiveless jealousy, abducted children, a bloody battle and a visit from the king of the gods. On the other, there’s a fair amount of bawdy humour, the beloved comedy trope of a girl pretending to be a boy and, more or less, a happy-ever-after conclusion. With a cast of characters including beautiful princess and her beloved, a misguided puppet king, a wicked stepmother and her sidekick, a junior Iago, a faithful retainer commanded to slay the princess but instead spares her life, and a band of outlaws instead of dwarves, it would be bit of a slog without a willingness to embrace the many fairytale elements.
Clear verse speaking is always a pleasure, complemented by Alex Baranowski’s understated musical score. We have a heroine to root for in Emily Barber’s Innogen, charming as a princess giddy with love and very game as her boyish alter ego Fidele. The hot-headed hero, Posthumus, is certainly less appealing to modern sensibilities. Jonjo O’Neil succeeds in conveying his adoration for Innogen in this rather thankless role. Pauline McGlynn’s Queen could afford to camp the wickedness up a bit more but shows remarkable physical assuredness in her appearance as Jupiter (a gender-bending divine fairy godmother of sorts?), in which she descends from the heavens like a creature out of an Inigo Jones masque. There is also good support from Calum Calaghan as the clottish Cloten, a mummy’s boy with a nasty nature of his own, and Trevor Fox as the loyal Pisano.
A sad tale with a happy ending is best for winter and, as the first play that Shakespeare wrote for the Lord Chamberlain’s Men to perform in the Blackfriars Theatre, there is a lovely sense of living history. If not exactly emotionally moving, Yates and his cast offer fitting homage to the steaming cauldron that was Shakespeare’s imagination in a beautiful setting.
The Exeunt interview with Sam Yates