Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
The 1623 First Folio puts Cymbeline among Shakespeare’s tragedies but, though it has bad things happen and good men taking wrong action, it has a happy ending. Its title monarch is a legendary British king at the beginning of the first century but it isn’t history either: it‘s romance rather.
Like those other late plays The Tempest, The Winter’s Tale and Pericles to be seen here later in this season, it was probably written for the company’s Blackfriars indoor theatre and so particularly appropriately staged here.
The story centres on Princess Innogen (the name now favoured rather than the Folio’s Imogen, now thought to be a misprint), whose new husband Posthumus is banished by Cymbeline her father, who had another marriage in mind, to his stepson Cloten. Innogen’s faithfulness and chastity become the subject of a bet between husband Posthumus and Roman Iachimo, but that is only one strand in complex plotting.
Sam Yates delivers a straightforward, swift-moving production, scenes almost overlapping. It doesn’t impose any directorial concept but leaves the play’s eclectic elements to draw their own responses. Costume is Jacobean for the men with armour and sashes that hint at togas for the Romans, the women in gowns more timeless. Furniture is limited to one scene when the plot demands a chest and a bed, giving them added importance that makes the sleeping Innogen’s exposure doubly prurient.
Rich cloth glows in candlelight and lower light levels make one concentrate on faces. The panelled stage with its gilding and the actors create a glamorous image but don’t distract. Concentration is drawn inwards on the text, which is delivered well and clearly. This is a production in which almost every layer is in command of the verse, making sense flow freely so that it works its effect without drawing undue attention to its form.
Joseph Marcell is an impressive, kingly Cymbeline, an autocrat who can be gentle or fiery, but at times ill-advised: he has never been aware of his second wife’s malevolence. She is the archetypical wicked stepmother. Pauline McLynn plays her with a smile that belies her badness but she’s out to get rid of Innogen and secure the succession for her son Cloten.
Calum Callaghan makes him more selfish dolt that truly evil. Perhaps the first Globe’s audience would have booed these two like pantomime baddies, but perhaps, in indoor proximity and in front of gentry, a subtler approach worked better—though it does make chopping his head off a bit drastic: when played more broadly it might raise a cheer.
Eugene O’Hare’s Iachimo is another instance of malevolence played down. But this is all in ratio: people down strut around being obvious villains, even though they may share evil thoughts with the audience.
This Posthumus gets Irish charm from Jonjo O’Neill; you can see what Innogen fell for. Would early modern ideas of honour make his reactions more understandable? But the plotting puts almost everyone here doing wrong to build to an almost Agatha Christie denouement of explanation and a finale that all Shakespeare’s romances share of wrongs being forgiven.
There are strong performances too from Brendan O’Hea as earlier exile Belarius and Darren Kuppan and Sid Sagar as the royal sons he abducted and raised, though their well-known dirge over the body of seeming dead Fidele is rather muted.
Emily Barber’s Innogen seems almost too innocent—she sounds so protected and well brought up you wonder how she got together with her husband—but once disguised in male guide as Fidele she discovers new depth and awareness and what risked being conventional fairy tale princess becomes interesting.
A particularly fine performance by Trevor Fox, who makes Posthumus’s servant Pisanio a Northumbrian, demonstrates perfectly how subtle playing works so well in this playhouse. It enables an intimacy with the audience that allows response moment by moment. This more easily accommodates the sudden shifts from deadly serious to humour that occur often in the latter half of the play.
In contrast to this almost naturalness, a more stylized action suggests battle and a grand effect can be even more effective as in the appearance of a deus ex machina. But Yates seems misguided here in turning that moment in this play into something comic with a female Jupiter slowly lowered, big-bosomed and skirt trailing.
You might psychologically explain a guilty Posthumus having a dream of the great male god made female as a serious comment but that’s not what this does. Shakespeare surely wants this to impress us!.