Updated: May 5
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, April 29th 2023.
Cymbeline is an especially rare Shakespearean treat. This play is harder than any other to place in terms of genre. Tragic, for starters, set in historical times (ancient Britain, a rarity in deed), comical – extremely so in the final act, full of romance and problematic, certainly. Historical tragical comical romantic problematic. It's also one of the late plays, with a strong supernatural element. A bit like Great Expectations, Cymbeline is an elaborate fairy tale with dark forces at work, much unexpected merriment and potential alternative endings.
Gregory Doran, directing for the final time for the RSC, handles all of this superbly. No surprise there. Greg might not like this next comment, but he always brings a safe pair of hands to proceedings. You know you’re going to experience something brilliant, and Cymbeline is the latest proof, the final play in the canon under his direction.
There is always a partnership though. Director, cast, and Shakespeare himself, coming together to provide leadership, performance, a fascinating script, an enchanting but disturbing story. All of these combine to become a magical play. And the RSC knows a thing or two about magic. Add to this partnership a fourth element: the audience. The play would be rather one-sided if we were not there. But our role is to appreciate what comes before us, and I am happy to say that the RSC’s Cymbeline, Greg’s Cymbeline, achieves greatness.
Gregory Doran (photo: Andrew Fox)
Shakespeare gives us all a massive helping hand in the first scene with an introduction to who’s who and what’s what, how everything relates, what’s gone before and where things might be going. Prologues aren’t always needed but this play is quite complex. And otherwise, how would we know that Posthumus Leonatus, King Cymbeline’s adopted son, could marry Imogen, the Queen’s daughter by a former partner? Exploring the fairy tale theme, Cinderella comes to mind. Here we have a wicked Queen / second wife to a somewhat foolish former widower.
The story advances with a separation, a dangerous wager, treachery, desperation, loss and abandonment, murder, war ultimately peace and reconciliation, and love rekindled. Eventually, we witness the discovery of lost loved ones and the biggest discovery of all: the truth.
The cast is superb. Amber James is the perfect Imogen in every demeanour and guise, making her own choices then overcoming outrageous treatment and hardship. Ed Sayer, on RSC debut as Posthumus, is convincing in falling apart, then discovering resilience and ultimately in his own sense of wonder. Jamie Wilkes (Iachimo) revels in all the cunning, disdain and ultimately horror in his role. Peter De Jersey (a very patriarchal King) and Alexander Gilbreath (the Queen with no name) bring disruption and calamity to events. Conor Glean (Cloten) prances across the stage in high dudgeon before losing his head in a most shocking way.
Iachimo (Jamie Wilkes) and Imogen (Amber James) (photo: Ellie Kurttz)
King Cymbeline (Peter De Jersey) (photo: Ellie Kurttz)
There are echoes of Othello with Iago style jealousy and lying, As You Like It with cross-dressing and danger in the forest, Romeo and Juliet with not-so-deadly potions, King Lear losing his truly loving daughter, and The Winters’s Tale with a wife coming back to life and being exonerated. Add to these Twelfth Night and Comedy of Errors with mistaken identity and yet more relatives reappearing after many years. Cymbeline reworks many of the storylines and presents the counterfactuals. One can just imagine Shakespeare thinking "here’s what could have happened if only Iago had repented and come clean".
Cymbeline, along with most Shakespeare plays no doubt, is not easy when performed badly. The opposite applies here on the RSC stage. Shakespeare’s words are voiced clearly and meaningfully. And this brings us back to the director, guiding the actors and encouraging everyone involved. Greg gets Shakespeare and he wants us all to get Shakespeare. Through the language, the delivery, the actions, this production is impressive in every way. This play, as presented, can be followed. Even the Bard would have to concede this is not always the case!
As a special treat, a reward for all of us, perhaps, we get a star cameo appearance from Jupiter, masked and draped in gold, descending on a swing. The role of Jupiter is not in the programme, but his voice is unmistakable. So engaging, with generation-spanning authority, baldly going.
Jupiter – making it so (photo: Ellie Kurttz)
A comic aside now. With so many digs at the Italians throughout the play, ultimately Shakespeare has Cymbeline – King of independence-seeking Britain – agree to pay off Caesar after all. A 3000 ducat tribute to an ancient mafia godfather, for peace-keeping. And even though Caius Lucius (Theo Ogundipe) is bound in chains, defeated on the battlefield, the Italians win the political fight in the end: #Crollalanza.
A final word on the lovers. Posthumus and Imogen. I’ve seen versions where the reconciliation is bitter and hollow, with the diamond ring chucked away and left on the stage floor. But Greg was never going to let that happen here. The future looks encouraging for this pair. Imogen and Posthumus seem relieved, thankful, willing to make things work, and still in love.
Posthumus (Ed Sayer) and Imogen (Amber James) recapturing the magic.
(photo: Ellie Kurttz)
This brings a happy ending to a hugely challenging fairy tale. All told, I think I have a new favourite Shakespeare play; one that celebrates and challenges the whole canon. And, finally, Greg can take a bow and reflect on a remarkable portfolio of insight and shared wonders.
© Eddie Hewitt 2023
RSC - Cymbeline