Jessica Harris reviews this Royal Shakespeare Company production.
A play which sits uncertainly between tragedy and comedy, and possibly a play with more plot than any other of Shakespeare’s works. This is Cymbeline.
From the levity of Iachimo hiding in a chest in Imogen’s chamber, his hands gradually appearing as he pushes open the lid to inspect the room and her sleeping form, to the beheaded torso of Cloten, lying next to the apparently dead Imogen, the tone of the play switches between the two. And yet we go with it, hanging on the characters’ words and deeds. Tchallenge for director is to ensure these disparate elements hang together and Greg Doran’s fiftieth production at the RSC achieves this wonderfully through enabling his actors to show us the characters’ inner lives and their inter-relationships.
The themes of Cymbeline are multiple. Romantic love and social class is one, and its resilience in the face of opposition. Imogen, only daughter of King Cymbeline, has chosen Posthumus as husband. As he is of low birth, this is not acceptable to her father, who wants her to marry Cloten, son of the king’s second wife. Despite the odds, Imogen remains faithful to Posthumus, and true love eventually wins through.
Another theme is nobility of character, and the way in which leadership will out in some and not in others, irrespective of birth or upbringing. Cymbeline’s two sons, raised in the wilds of Wales by Belarius, an unjustly banished nobleman, have insight, courage and a respect for others. In contrast, Cloten, born and raised within the royal court, has a total absence of nobility, and seeks to command through violence and intimidation.
Indeed, the play would seem to be concerned with a lack of heroes – at least, within the pool of available men. Posthumus is hardly a shining example of one. First, he accepts Iachimo’s wager that he can persuade Imogen to sleep with him, and then, convinced of her infidelity, in a speech full of venom against women, orders that she be killed. Cloten could never be considered hero material, his brutishness and self-serving nature being clear to all. Cymbeline himself is weak and easily led, denying Imogen the possibility of a happy marriage and subservient to the poor judgements of his Queen and her son, Cloten.
And so we are left to look elsewhere for heroic traits. Imogen is the epitome; true to herself, she is willing to speak her mind in declaring her love for Posthumus. Courageous, resourceful and faithful, she disguises herself as a boy and joins the Roman army in order to make her way to him in Italy. Cymbeline’s two sons, though still young and inexperienced, are brave and with a strong moral compass. Not only does Guiderius slay Cloten by cutting off his head, but both are instrumental in the defeat of the Romans by the British.
But although heroes may be in doubt, there are villains – both of the truly malicious type and of the humorous type. Whilst Cloten’s idea of the way to Imogen’s heart is to dress in her husband’s clothes in order to deceive and rape her, Iachimo is playful and, ultimately, repentant for his misdeeds.
The theme of patriotism also raises its head, the play swerving from one position to another on this tricky topic. Cloten and the Queen want to see an end to the tribute paid by Britain to Rome in exchange for Rome’s promise not to invade, declaring that Britain should remain an independent isle, and not subservient in any way. Once they are dead, Cymbeline makes the decision to pay the tribute and to secure peace, an odd decision since Britain has just been victorious in battle against Rome. Arguably, the debate is left unresolved at the end of the play.
On a pared back set, where the passing time is shown by the changing colour of a huge sun/moon overhanging the stage, and changing locations are conjured up through instrumentation and voices, the actors are the focus. Imogen, played by Amber James, is feisty and strong – a woman of our times, it would seem. Cloten, played by Conor Glean, struts around the stage, displaying sometimes petulance, sometimes threat. The Queen, played by Alexandra Gilbreath, gives a truly entertaining performance, her facial gestures giving the lie to her words at every turn. Jamie Wilkes as Iachimo is ebullient, persuasive and manipulative and, in the end, contrite. Peter de Jersey, as Cymbeline, gives a particularly strong performance in the final scenes, as the true events are revealed to him and he comes to terms with the new order of things.
Rarely performed, the staging of Cymbeline is full of challenges. This production, however, is very watchable and highly accessible. It is on at the RSC until 27th May. For further information visit rsc.org.uk
Pic – Ellie Kurttz (c)RSC.