RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford on Avon
Picture the scene: it's 1609 and William Shakespeare, quill at the ready, decides to write another blockbuster, one which may be his last offering as he's already thinking about retiring to Stratford.
So, what about a theme? Conflict between Britain and Rome always goes down well with the groundlings, as it did in Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra. Jealousy is a pretty popular subject too; take Othello as an example. How about one of the characters taking a potion which makes other people think she's dead? It worked spectacularly in Romeo and Juliet.
Throw in appearances by a god (As You Like It), cross-dressing (Twelfth Night), heads being chopped off, revenge and reconciliation, and you have Cymbeline, the biggest hotchpotch the Bard came up with.
It's the tale of Cymbeline, King of Britain, who wants his daughter Imogen to marry Cloten, the son of Cymbeline's second wife. But she has secretly married a commoner, Posthumus Leonatus. Cymbeline banishes him to Rome where he meets Iachimo who bets that he can seduce Imogen.
Iachimo realises Imogen is incorruptible but obtains evidence which convinces Posthumus of her adultery. Posthumus orders his servant Pisanio to kill Imogen but he advises her to disguise herself as a page. She then stumbles across her two brothers who were stolen in infancy twenty years earlier.
Imogen joins the Roman army which is invading Britain as a result of Cymbeline's refusal to pay tribute to Rome. Posthumus and the two princes are instrumental in defeating the Roman army. In the final scene everything is unravelled and there are a couple of other surprises as the many loose ends are all tied up.
The play has caused more problems than it has sub-plots. People who like to give everything a label can't even decide into which category it falls. It's often known, along with The Winter's Tale and The Tempest, as a late romance. But some refer to it as a comedy.
The RSC are performing Cymbeline in the Swan for the first time. Dominic Cooke has come up with an imaginative production which never flags despite its three-and-a-half hours duration.
There's never any doubt about who is on the two differing sides. The Italians, chic and stylish as you would expect, are resplendent in white suits and sunglasses, while, in sharp contrast, the Britons, whose costumes are more rustic in style, are adorned inconsistently with fur, feather and even a horse's tail.
Emma Fielding is a gritty Imogen, not simply virtuous and chaste as she is chased by Iachimo. Anton Lesser is marvellous as the greasy Italian "gentleman" and the scene in which he tricks his way into Imogen's bedroom is brilliantly acted.
Paul Chahidi comes over as a brash, headstrong Cloten who tries to compensate for his lack of intellect by blustering his way through life.
Perhaps Daniel Evans (Posthumus) and Aaron Neil (Pisanio) might have made more of their roles, adding light and shade to their performances. On the whole, though, the entire company obviously enjoy the experience.
The battles scenes are gripping and the special effects stunning. Cloten's "head" looks authentic when placed on a pole after it's been cut off in a fight with Guiderius and there were gasps from the audience when Imogen hugged Cloten's headless corpse believing it to be that of Posthumus.
Despite being a dog's dinner, the plot of Cymbeline surprisingly works and the RSC have done a creditable job with it. It's a pity more people don't put themselves out to see it.
"Cymbeline" runs until November 7th
See also Pete Wood's review of the same production
Reviewer: Steve Orme