Cymbeline

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company
Barbican Theatre

Bethan Cullinane Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Cymbeline Credit: Ellie Kurttz
Gilian Bevan Credit: Ellie Kurttz

The RSC Cymbeline directed by Melly Still is generally faithful to the text, fluent and entertaining. The acting is engaging and good-humoured. There are also songs and dances. The three-and-a-half-hour performance is never boring.

Cymbeline will never be anyone’s favourite Shakespeare play, but it does sample a lot of plays that might be a favourite from King Lear to As You Like It. There is the young woman waking from a drug that has put her in a death-like state finding beside her a body she believes is her young lover (Romeo and Juliet). A man is tricked by another man into believing his wife unfaithful (Othello).

The plot is amiably ridiculous and most of the characters slight, but the play does contain the very strong lead Innogen given a warm, confident performance by Bethan Cullinane.

There is the usual routine of having the woman pretend for no apparent reason to be a man for a good deal of the show, and her incredible adventures include living in a cave with wild huntsmen and joining the invading Roman army that is waging a war against the British.

This is a romance that doesn’t worry itself too much about the plausibility of details. It also touches themes such as young love, court intrigues and national identity with such slightness that it barely matters.

Melly Still even gives it a referendum topicality. Britain under Cymbeline (Gilian Bevan) has decided to leave the orbit of the Roman Empire. During the first section of the play, I even wondered if the play might be called Cymbeline and the Brexiteers. I do believe I heard one character banished to Europe say as he left, "God protect the good remainers of Court."

The dystopian set with its graffiti walls filled with slogans such as "Free the people" suggests a Britain in decay. In contrast, the Roman court is given a more multicultural worldly appearance where its courtiers speak in French and Latin with surtitles.

Like most of the theatre world, this production regards the leave side in negative terms. Melly Still says that “the country has gone backwards”.

Nevertheless, the production wears its Brexit theme lightly and Shakespeare does allow the leavers some good lines, including from the villain Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) the words “Britain’s a world by itself and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses”.

However, serious debate and a believable plot is not the purpose of this enjoyable romance. It is simply an entertaining adventure story wrapped around one strong character and some memorable scenes.

Like all good romances, it ends happily. Children are restored to their parent, lovers are reunited, the Roman army is defeated and the Roman prisoners released. Moreover, since all the evil Brexiteers are killed, Britain can remain in Europe. That will surely please 48% of the population.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna