Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Cymbeline

William Shakespeare
Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park
(2005)

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Seldom revived, this play has always been a source of controversy, the work of a man in the sunset of his creative life. The First Folio’s editors, unsure whether it was a comedy or a history, finally dubbed it a tragedy, perhaps because one character gruesomely gets the chop. But subsequent scholars have framed it as a romance,.

Cymbeline, the pagan British monarch, has a wicked second wife with a penchant for poison. She wants her oafish son Cloten wedded to the royal princess, Imogen, in order to secure the throne. But Imogen, against her father’s wishes, has already married her childhood chum Posthumus, who, banished to Italy, gives his young wife a bracelet as a love token.

Plot complications follow as the sly Iachimo in Rome wagers with Posthumus that he can seduce the pure incorruptible Imogen. Imogen runs away disguised as boy, while the king turns down a Roman demand for more tribute money. Eventually almost all the characters end up in rural Milford Haven, including a troop of warlike Roman soldiers ready to do battle with the British upstarts.

Shaw loved the character of Imogen, but thinking the last act ‘a hopeless mess’ wrote and produced his own version. Rachel Kavanaugh’s robust revival proves instead that the closing scene, a pile-up of revelations, reunions and long-lost birthmarks, is in fact both brilliantly structured and a remarkable piece of tongue in cheek comedy that keeps its hand on its heart while encouraging us to laugh.

This may be Ancient Britain, but Jon Bausor has created a monumental metallic setting of palace walls and craggy caves that could be a tribute to the Franco-Swiss architect Le Corbusier, plus flattering costumes for the women of the court that take us back to Dior’s post-war New Look.

Imogen, who gets to wear a lovely slipper-satin robe in the bed scene, is a dream girl whose virtues include spirited intelligence, doughty courage and a love of home cooking. Emma Pallant plays her with wide-eyed wonder, anguish and touch-me-not dignity at court. But her performance literally takes off as she dons her boyish disguise, happily bumping into her rusticated brothers who live in a Welsh cave, but without recognition on either side.

Daniel Flynn, like many before him, finds little to go on in the ungrateful role of Posthumus, until flung into jail as a Roman fellow-traveller, when he shares a fine scene with a philosophical hangman, and with the ghosts of his past — but alas, not with Jupiter arriving on an eagle as in the text, which could have been a nice call for thunder and lightning in the open air.

The comedy comes out when the actors are encouraged to play the subtext, here notably in four central roles. Julian Curry does a lovely turn as the foolish old king in a wheelchair, in thrall to a bossy, ambitious wife, but always letting us see his real feelings as he hands out knighthoods, promises to punish the wicked, then retracts and forgives with a merry half smile.

Harriet Thorpe, a gorgeous eyeful in a figure hugging costume and high heels, plays the Queen not just as a wicked stepmother, but also as a poised Britannia-like patriotic figure, a creature of self-knowing, sexual allure who stalks the court like a tigress.

As the sophisticated villain Iachimo (Simon Day) is a lounge lizard with the languorous air of an English toff, and whose Italian pedigree gets no further than a well-cut silk suit and winkle picker shoes.

His midnight visit to the sleeping Imogen’s bedroom includes some delicious new business, including smoochy gentle kisses to her breast, and a swift but ungentlemanly peek under her nightdress, looking for false proof of her infidelity.

Thirty years ago when he was a matinee idol, Terence Wilton played Posthumus for the RSC at the Aldwych. Now a splendidly seasoned actor he brings to the role of Belarius — grand old man of Welsh Wales — his cracking vocal delivery, a tragedian cutting through the Regent’s Park night air, which together with an underlying drollery shows him ready to play the great Shakespearean parts from Lear to Falstaff.

Two hours 40 is a long time to sit in the open air, however sunny the day or enthralling the performance, so be sure to take something warm to put on after the interval.

Reviewer: John Thaxter