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Cymbeline

William Shakespeare
RSC at the Newcastle Playhouse
(2003)

I never before realised the debt that Agatha Christie owed to Shakespeare. "There's one thing I don't understand, M. Poirot...."

Cymbeline proves that Shakespeare invented the final scene of so many detective novels - the explanation at the end in which all is revealed by the detective, whether Poirot, Marple or whoever. Mind you, Shakespeare's goes on a lot longer than any of Miss Christie's, but then he has a lot to explain! Director Dominic Cooke plays it for laughs (as, indeed, he does the whole play) and gets a lot of them. As each bit of complication was explained, the audience roared.

What a glorious hodge-podge this play is! With cross-dressing disguise, long-lost and the found children, an Iago-like plot against a virtuous wife, an evil scheming stepmother, star-crossed lovers, chopped-off heads, more blood than Titus, the appearance of a god, a banished but loyal noble, a potion which seems to kill its taker but doesn't... Well, it's almost a case of "you mention it, it's there"!

What is remarkable - and a real tribute to Shakespeare - is that it works. Oh, if we approach it with reverence or attempt to draw some worthy moral from it or find some deep insight in it, then it becomes a slight and rather messy piece, but if it's played for laughs - and I am damned sure that's how Shakespeare would have played it - it's great fun.

"Camp as a row of tents," said my companion as we left the theatre, and so it was, especially the entrance of Jupiter, complete with angelic wings and white god-like garb, flown in from the flies.

For comedy of this kind to succeed, it needs to be played seriously by the actors. They can't camp it up, or even send it up, otherwise it dies. Thus we saw some splendid performances. Anton Lesser as Iachimo (Iago - well, why shouldn't Shakespeare put in a few in-jokes?) was superbly sleazy, Ishia Bennison gloriously hypocritical and underhand as the Queen and, as for Emma Fielding's Imogen, she was the epitome of the romantic heroine, almost principal boy-like in her male disguise.

Paul Chahidi was comically ineffective and somewhat dense as Cloten - his off-key singing was a brilliant touch - and, indeed, it is difficult to fault any of the cast. I can't say, however, that I was particulary enamoured of some of the costumes. Imogen's dress (which any self-respecting Oxfam shop would have refused to stock) certainly did not go with those boots, and some of the Britons' outfits were reminiscent of nothing so much as voodoo priests, which sat rather oddly with the Maori war dances, which did work very well.

If you had come to the theatre expecting some kind of traditional, reverential Shakespearean production, you would have left at the interval - as, indeed, some did - but if you accept the play for what it is, a good old romp through some of the clichés of Elizabethan drama, you would, like me, have had a good night out!

This production has also been reviewed by Steve Orme and Pete Wood.

Reviewer: Peter Lathan