Regular readers (and twitter followers) may have noticed that I've been suffering a run of poor to indifferent shows. It is therefore a joy to be able to say that this RSC Cymbeline breaks the run, in magical, moving fashion.
As a play Cymbeline is at times like a compendium of Shakespeare devices, characters and plots all thrown together into an occasionally crazy pot. We have battles stepping out of the history plays, feigned deaths akin to Hero or Juliet, recovered heirs as in The Winter's Tale and a darker reusing of the idea of love tokens seen more happily in All's Well. Then there are the abrupt deaths, the sudden changes of tone, and an exposition heavy final scene. It is easy to imagine a less accomplished team coming to grief. That instead the play transcends its limitations is I think a tribute to the way the team trust it. From the outset this show simply asserts belief in this world and its abrupt changes of fortune, and that tone successfully carried me over even the most bumpy textual moments.
At the head of the enterprise is director Melly Still, of whom I am becoming a real admirer. I loved her recent Glyndebourne Vixen, and her stunning From Morning to Midnight at the National (Rufus Norris would be well advised to invite her back). She is ably supported by the superb designs of Anna Fleischle, atmospheric lighting of Philip Gladwell, intelligent movement of Emily Mytton and Dave Price's music. This world is given a fairy tale cast, which reminded me just faintly of Marianne Eliott's lovely NT All's Well. Much is achieved simply – the two walls at the back do impressively varied work – single pieces of furniture, a subtle change in lighting. The production has some lovely moments of picking characters out when they aren't speaking – Imogen reading just before the fatal scene that will temporarily doom her stood out for me. It also finds in a number of places that tension in connection which can, rightly done, send shivers down the spine – the recognition between Imogen and Posthumus for example. The many tiny asides are often handled with clever, swift transitions of lighting to focus us in on a single character but to leave us uncertain are we inside their minds, or are they talking under their breath. The intermingling of Latin, Italian and French (with appropriate supertitles) is a brilliant conceit, very funny, and knocking spots off the several indifferent foreign language Shakespeares I've sat through this year.
All this would go for nothing if the cast did not form an ensemble of very high quality. The verse speaking is nearly all at the highest level succeeding in that key trick with Shakespeare of making it feel natural. The abrupt changes of mood make this text especially challenging but the cast navigate these with great art. A particular example of this is the first scene where we meet the exiled Belarius and his two “children”. It begins as an exchange among the lower orders about hunting, then Belarius must suddenly step into soliloquy and spin us the tale of his exile. The excellent Graham Turner perfectly manages both the switch between these two registers and the different character of each. The other magical thing is a knack that Still coaxes out so that somehow the best little moments in the text contrive to suddenly shine forth from the mass of words and catch at the heart. Examples include Imogen's plea “but if there be yet left in heaven as small a drop of pity as a wren's eye, fear'd gods, a part of it!” and Pisanio's giving herself up to fate: “All other doubts, by time let them be clear'd: Fortune brings in some boats that are not steer'd.” I also cannot resist mention of Imogen's line to Posthumus after, unbelieving of her claim that she is his wife, he has thrown her from him: “Why did you throw your wedded lady from you? Think that you are upon a rock; and now throw me again.”
The cast is also a model of how to do gender/colour blind casting (and a lesson to other venues which rightly strain after this at present but have rarely achieved it with the same ease). Genders are switched in several cases, the ensemble is a mix of black and white actors – the mix simply is, and the more powerfully so because the production doesn't waste time advancing reasons for it – and thus makes it an entirely convincing part of this total world.
The three most complete performances come from Marcus Griffiths as Cloten (sadly cut off early in the second half), Oliver Johnstone's Iachimo (the scene in which he infiltrates Imogen's bedroom is creepily brilliant) and Natalie Simpson's Guideira. Simpson makes everything of what is a comparatively small part – a powerful energy radiates from her, she goes convincingly toe to toe with Griffiths's Cloten and I look forward to seeing her in bigger roles. There's also a very fine piece of supporting work from Theo Ogundipe (I hope I've identified the right actor) in a number of smaller roles (his aside “You are a cock!” to Cloten is fabulous). Bethan Cullinane's Imogen is just a shade behind them – she often seems somehow radiant, particularly in her confrontation with Johnstone, there's a perfect breathless haste when planning the journey to Milford, and some lovely little touches as when hiding from Cloten's serenade or kissing Posthumus's bracelet, but presence and delivery just occasionally dip in the latter stages. James Clyde's Duke, another poorly served by the work in the second half, is nicely two faced. James Cooney's Arviragus is an effective partner to Simpson's Guideira. Hiran Abeysekera's Posthumus has got a little further to go. He catches something of the necessary almost adolescent recklessness and at his best he delivers the text as well as anyone but he could find more consistency. My feeling was that a desire for impetus sometimes compromised clearness of delivery and strength of projection. But he is an interesting actor, and I look forward to seeing what he goes on to. Gillian Bevan's Cymbeline I also found slightly weaker. I wondered if she was suffering from vocal trouble as I felt that in the public scenes she just needed that little bit more power to the voice to signify her authority. Finally, among the major roles there's strong work from Kelly Williams as Pisania, who in particular has a couple of moments when she expertly makes shine a little textual gem. The rest of the ensemble provide strong support.
In the wrong hands this is a play that could fall to pieces. Still and her company manage to make this world a compelling and believable one. And they manage, entirely without forcing it, to subtly comment on our present political travails. On several occasions in the second half I had tears in my eyes. Highly recommended.