It’s like waiting for a bus: seeming aeons elapse with no mention of Cymbeline, and then what do you know but three major productions of Shakespeare’s tragi-comedy come along within a year of one another. Thought to have been written in around 1609, it is one of the bard’s late romances, which include the more high profile Tempest and Winter’s Tale. At the year’s start, Cymbeline was in residence at The Globe’s intimate Sam Wanamaker Theatre, a traditional precursor to Matthew Dunster’s recent Imogen on the main stage, which brought the show – and its heroine – to the modern day with the help of grime music and athleisure styling. That production closed last month, overlapping with the Royal Shakespeare Company’s telling, which is now at The Barbican until December.
Director Melly Still has pushed us into the not-too-distant future this time, to a dystopian Britain embittered and beleaguered by its “belligerent independence and insularity.” Yes, this is post-Brexit land, and not a very happy one: our refusal to continue paying Italy a courtesy stipend just for the sake of international harmony has gone down like a lead balloon on the continent, and war is ensuing. The ground is strewn with rubbish and everything is dull, dingy and grey – the audience would have to be composed entirely of cretins not to recognize that this is a grim situation, especially given the jazzy neon lights the Italians bask in by comparison. And at this crucial political moment, Cymbeline’s daughter Innogen adds to the monarch’s woes by eloping with her lover Posthumus when she was supposed to have married her stepbrother Cloten. Posthumus is banished, Innogen imprisoned, and the bullish Cloten left reeling by the affront.
In this frenetic yet spirited production, Still’s boldest move is to have swapped genders around to give us a Queen Cymbeline rather than a king. Whilst the feminist in me does an immediate little cheer at this, I do wonder whether it is such a compliment to the female sex after all, since Cymbeline is not portrayed as the most composed of rulers here and Gillian Bevan, in the title role, often seems dazed by stressful events. That is also when she is not being steered by her conniving husband – the duke – who ultimately wants to push his own son onto the throne. In a perverse way, this deviousness almost makes you impressed by Shakespeare’s original gender allocation since the consort is so wily, so fierce – regardless of sex – as to make it a satisfyingly juicy character (that’s not to say I condone the actions, but you have to hand it to a person for being so downright bad-ass). Either way, James Clyde makes an excellent villain in this role and, as Still had hoped, his duke is dastardly without echoing the sort of pantomime evil stepmother that could otherwise emerge.
What’s more, it is interesting to see a female monarch shown in all her guises: just as we do with portrayals of male leaders, we are privy to Cymbeline alone and barely woken, wearing a skull cap before she has donned her more impressive wig, along with a shapeless nightdress and socks prior to her battle-ready cargo gear and cloak. In showing us all sides of the queen, we get a sense of her humanity and of the huge responsibility that this one person has to manage, as opposed to seeing purely the gilded façade of a female ruler as though she derives her power from that outward appearance. It also means that when she is reunited with her long-lost children, the fact that this is the mending of a maternal bond – rather than a patriarch simply acquiring some lost property – makes it even more moving.
One of those long-lost children is the heir to the throne, who has likewise been turned into a woman. And Natalie Simpson’s Guideria is screamingly funny. Petite in her person, Simpson acts with self-assurance to deliver her dry lines with easy wit. She adds light relief to a thickly laden plot that could well get bogged down, and there aren’t many people in this world who can make beheading someone seem no more than a schoolyard bust up (yeah, things get complicated).
Guideria, along with her brother and adoptive father, seem akin to Game of Thrones’ wildlings (complete with hardy northern accents) in living such a primitive existence. Residing as they do in a cave in Milford Haven, lord knows why they should sound so uniformly Lancastrian rather than Welsh, but they are entertaining nonetheless.
The real star is Bethan Cullinane, who imbues the honourable Innogen with youthful verve, endearingly bolshie humour and a solid sense of compassion. Utterly unencumbered by affectation, Cullinane captures the stage and all its energy as any impassioned princess ought, and makes Shakespeare’s words seem no more protracted than a soap opera’s.
There is a lot going on in this production and, over the three and a half hours you’ll spend at The Barbican, that means one hell of an amount to take in. So I really didn’t have the mental space to appreciate the symbolism of the framed stump of a tree trunk plonked in the middle of the stage, and Posthumus’ descent into manic remorse over his inadvisable wager felt a fraction over-hyped with so much else happening. But the music is compelling, the stage direction dynamic and the performances robust, and it just goes to show that there should be much more Cymbeline on our stages.
The RSC’s Cymbeline at The Barbican until 17th December 2016. Running time 3 hours and 25 minutes including an interval. Production images by Ellie Kurttz. For more information and tickets please visit the website.