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Cymbeline

William Shakespeare
Swan, Stratford on Avon
(2003)

What a curiosity Cymbeline is. It's as if the Bard, nearing the end of his career, decided to go for broke by throwing in everything he could think of, and then to round things off, added a manifestation by the god Jupiter.

Three separate stories weave in and out of this play which, in Dominic Cooke's generally assured production, weighs in at a hefty three-and-three-quarter hours. The good news is that, for all the narrative intricacies and some questionable costumes which, like the play, incorporate every possible influence imaginable, the production at the Swan theatre passes pretty swiftly.

The other good news is that this production boasts a fine performance by Anton Lesser as Iachimo, an Italian gentleman, actually far from a gentleman as it happens, making a very welcome to Stratford after some years absence.

This is late, late Shakespeare, but far from showing the Bard resting on his laurels, Cymbeline reveals a writer still continuing to experiment. It is also, as Frank Kermode notes, "a sort of history play with a romance plot thrown in." The history bit concerns the refusal by the ancient British under the kingship of Cymbeline, a figure of 'vague' historical provenance thought to have ruled about the time of Christ, to pay tribute to the Romans. They subsequently defeat the army sent to exact compliance but opt to pay the tribute anyway.

It seems in writing about the ancient British, Shakespeare was merely following a current theatrical vogue.

A second element in the play is a wager between the luxurious Iachimo and Posthumus Leonatus (the excellent Daniel Evans), exiled from Britain following the discovery of his marriage to the King's daughter Imogen, that his wife is virtue incarnate, proof against the Italian's best efforts on her chastity.

The latter is drawn from Boccacio. The third element, that of Cymbeline's missing sons, presumed dead for many years, but in fact still alive and now in early manhood, is a familiar romance theme. Add to this a villainous, scheming stepmother for a queen, and you have a recipe for confusion. Oh, and there's the usual device of a woman (Imogen) disguising herself as a man

It is to Cooke's credit then that out of this mish-mash he creates a coherent narrative which strengthens as the play wears on. The staging is simple; a collection of what look like large shutters lean against the back of the otherwise bare stage. The focus is on the action and the words which, thankfully, are well-spoken, even if their content is sometimes obscure.

The costumes range from a bizarrely frocked and booted Imogen, who reminded me of nothing so much as Shirley Bassey when she appeared on Morecambe and Wise many years back; white-suited, sunglass-wearing and, in one case, pony-tailed Italians, and Roman legionnaires clad in what roughly approximates to period armour. Cymbeline sits in an NHS wheelchair.

There are some fine performances: from David Horovitch as Cymbeline, Evans as Posthumous, Emma Fielding, excellent as Imogen, Christopher Godwin as a vigorous Belarius, a lord wrongly exiled years ago by Cymbeline who has taken revenge by making off with his young sons, the aforementioned Lesser as Iachimo, Paul Chahidi as the villainous but dense Cloten - a fine comic turn - while James Staddon seizes the chance to play Jupiter, king of the gods, with both wings, er hands.

See also Steve Orme's review of the same production

Reviewer: Pete Wood