Cymbeline (Shakespeare’s Globe) @ Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, 2016Comedy

  • José A. Pérez Díez
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Performed by Emily Barber (Imogen), Calum Callaghan (Cloten), Trevor Fox (Pisanio), Darren Kuppan (Arviragus), Christopher Logan (Cornelius), Joseph Marcell (Cymbeline), Pauline McLynn (Queen), Eugene O’Hare (Iachimo), Brendan O’Hea (Belarius), Jonjo O’Neill (Posthumus), Dharmesh Patel (Soothsayer, Philario), Tika Peucelle (Mother, Helen), Paul Rider (Caius Lucius), and Sid Sagar (Guiderius). Directed by Sam Yates. Music composed by Alex Baranowski.

Reviewed by José A. Pérez Díez

Cymbeline 2016The last time that I had the opportunity to see this play live was in 2007 when Cheek by Jowl mounted a splendid production in which a very young, virtually unknown actor recently graduated from RADA gave a breakthrough performance as Posthumus and Cloten in the most astonishing doubling that I can remember. To alternate characters, Tom Hiddleston would approach the edge of the stage and, ostensibly in front of the audience, he would adjust his hairstyle and his coat—lapels pulled up for one, flattened for the other—and put on or remove a pair of glasses; a slight change of speech completed the transformation: he became in front of our very eyes two completely different people. There have not been many major productions of that play on British soil for almost a decade. However, in 2016 we will be able to see it no less than three times, as it is making a comeback to the RSC, and the Globe is producing it not once, but twice: apart from the revival at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse that I will be dealing with here, the new artistic director, Emma Rice, has announced another outing of the play for the summer season in the main house, where it will be performed under the title Imogen. Rice justified this by the fact that the play’s heroine has more lines than anyone else. Rice is an extremely interesting director, though perhaps an unlikely candidate for the Globe’s artistic directorship, as the only play by Shakespeare that she had directed before was precisely Cymbeline—or a very free adaptation thereof that was received with mixed reviews—that she produced with her own company Kneehigh as part of the RSC Complete Works Festival in 2006. She has also been criticised for inviting Kneehigh to undertake what amounts to a full residential of the company in the Globe, and for not being adventurous enough in the choice of plays for her first season, relying on well-trodden pieces such as Macbeth and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, both of which have been seen in the house quite recently. The outgoing artistic director, Dominic Dromgoole, has also been under scrutiny by the choice of plays for his last season at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, where, after two years of interesting, ground-breaking work on the repertory of Renaissance plays beyond Shakespeare, he chose to present the current all-Shakespeare season as a sort of ‘ultimate experiment’ that was always in the works. Those of us who would rather like to see a revival of The Spanish Tragedy, A King and No King or The Renegado, and who are not necessarily interested in seeing yet another production of The Tempest, sighed with dismay (and I here join my sigh to that of Eoin Price, who blogged about the disappointing marketing rhetoric that accompanied Dromgoole’s season announcement; you can read it here). I have become a kind of collector of productions of The Winter’s Tale, so I don’t mind that much, and seeing Pericles and Cymbeline is also a rare opportunity; but my point holds: excluding Shakespeare from previous seasons was unnecessary and probably annoyed some patrons; offering a Shakespeare-only menu now was bound to annoy some of us.

The present revival of Cymbeline is directed by Sam Yates with surprisingly uneven results. Apart from a few large portable items—Imogen’s bed, Iachimo’s chest—the production is necessarily sparse in design (even if designer Richard Kent is credited in the programme); I think that is not necessarily a bad thing, given the special features of the Playhouse. The variations in candle lighting have also been brought under control: if in Dominic Dromgoole’s inaugural production of The Duchess of Malfi (January 2014) the chandeliers spent all night bobbing up and down at different heights, such effects have been blissfully restricted to certain meaningful moments in the performance. This was the case of the bedchamber scene (2.2), in which the sconces on the columns around the stage were extinguished and the shutters around the galleries were closed to stop the outside electric light from seeping in. The music score was a modern creation by Aex Baranowski, who managed to generate an atmospheric soundscape, unusually played on modern instruments (woodwind and three cellos) rather than the usual period ensemble.

The cast was generally strong, though the direction did not seem to make the most out of some performances. Emily Barber composed a lovely and innocent Imogen—sorry, Innogen, as they chose the Oxford Shakespeare spelling—and stood out as one of the most committed and believable characters in the play. The other strongest performance was, in my opinion, the ever-solid Brendan O’Hea, who invested his Belarius with great gravitas and humanity (I will never forget his hysterically funny turn as the giant Barbarosso in The Knight of the Burning Pestle in the same theatre). Jonjo O’Neill, for a few years a leading man of the RSC within Michael Boyd’s post-histories ‘long ensemble’ (Orlando, Mercutio, Richard III), brought a solid technique and his usual charm to the difficult role of Posthumus. The wonderful comic actress Pauline McLynn (of Father Ted fame), who was a ludicrously funny Citizen’s Wife in the SWP production of The Knight of the Burning Pestle, seemed to have mistaken the tone of the role of the Queen to some extent, and just played her for laughs (stressing the first syllable of the name ‘Pisanio’ every time she referred to that character, for example); this, I thought, diminished her real threat in the fiction of the play as a dangerous poisoner. Calum Callaghan’s Cloten was a little too shallow, and, again, more could have been done to bring out his potential as a menacing presence in the play. Eugene O’Hare was a solid Iachimo who relished in the sexual innuendo of his lines and who was appropriately creepy in his dealings with Imogen (I’m still trying to think what accent he was using; not quite Irish, perhaps trying an Italian inflection?). Finally, the veteran and well-known Joseph Marcell, great Cardinal Pandulph in the Globe’s King John only last year, did as much as one can do with the title role, who, after all, is never quite the hero of his own story.

The production as a whole failed to engage me throughout, but presented some interesting individual performances. With a stronger direction the same cast could have brought to life a much stronger reading of a beautiful, moving, and undeservedly underperformed play. Let us look forward to what the RSC can do with it, and indeed to Matthew Dunster’s production of Innogen—sorry, Imogen.

Author: José A. Pérez Díez

Dr José A. Pérez Díez is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds, where he is currently working on the new edition of the complete works of John Marston to be published by Oxford University Press in 2020. He holds a doctorate from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-upon-Avon, where he produced the first fully annotated, modern-spelling critical edition of John Fletcher and Philip Massinger's Love's Cure, or The Martial Maid (visit www.lovescure.wordpress.com). He reviews Renaissance drama in performance for Shakespeare Bulletin and Cahiers Élisabéthains. Follow him at @JoseAPerezDiez
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