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The RSC Presents Cymbeline at the Barbican

Published by: Carolin Kopplin on 5th Nov 2016 | View all blogs by Carolin Kopplin

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Hang there like fruit, my soul, till the tree die.

The romance Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare's late plays and rarely performed because of its complex and convoluted plot. Therefore, we are rather fortunate that we've been given the chance to see two intriguing productions in London this year - one by Shakespeare's Globe and now another by the Royal Shakespeare Company as part of their London Season.

When Innogen (Bethan Cullinane), the Queen's daughter and the only living heir, marries her childhood friend Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera) in secret, the enraged Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) banishes him. Cymbeline's husband, the Duke (James Clyde), realising that his foolish son Cloten will never win Innogen's heart, is plotting to seize power by murdering Innogen. Meanwhile Posthumus, in exile, agrees to a bet regarding the faithfulness of his wife, suggested by the cunning Iachimo. When Iachimo tricks him into believing that his wife betrayed him, Posthumus joins the Roman army to fight against Britain. Innogen, deceived by Posthumus's servant Pisania (Kelly Williams), that she is to meet her husband at Milford Haven, learns about the plot against her life and disguises as a man to save herself, hiding away in a forest in Wales where she meets Belarius and - unknown to her - her two siblings who were abducted by Belarius when they were just little babes.

Cymbeline production photos_ May 2016_2016_Photo by Ellie Kurttz _c_ RSC_192813.jpg

Hiran Abeysekera (Posthumus) and Bethan Cullinane (Innogen)

Director Melly Still transports the action from the times of Augustus Caesar to a dystopian future where a deeply divided and isolated Britain has slipped back into a pre-industrial state. Queen Cymbeline is wearing a garment made of sacks, the characters inhabitating the forest in Wales hunt with bows and arrows and look like they are part of the "Mad Max" franchise. Whereas Britain is presented as a series of run-down builidings, sprayed with graffiti, Rome is featured as a glorious metropolis, cosmopolitan and trendy where the characters freely converse in Italian, French, and Spanish - even English, which should come as a relief to Iachimo's friend Philario (Byron Mondahl) who, apart from being awkward with languages, uses a strong English accent to great comic effect. Even Latin is used when the Roman general and Cymbeline discuss the state of their relationship. Cymbeline refuses Rome's rule, declaring "we are a warlike tribe" Yet towards the end of the play Britain returns to the fold of Rome and to peace and harmony.

I am not so sure about the analogy to post-Brexit Britain. There is a difference between being part of the Roman Empire, which was comparable to colonialism, and being a member of the European Union. I doubt that the EU is going to wage war against Britain any time soon after Article 50 has been evoked although the other member states certainly wish Britian would remain.

However, Melly Still's production is intriguing and beautifully staged. Bethan Cullinane's Innogen is lovely and deeply touching - a sweet and innocent character who openly displays her love for Posthumus, played as somewhat awkward and rough by Hiran Abeysekera. Oliver Johnstone's Iachimo is an Italian Latin lover, smooth and slippery at first, yet tortured by his conscience later. Cloten, a great comic performance by Marcus Griffiths, is hilarious as the unwanted suitor as he is awkwardly serenading Innogen with the song "My Lady Sweet Arise".

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Gillian Bevan (Cymbeline)

The production features a diverse cast and some gender swapping with Cymbeline being turned into a Queen, which lends more relevance to her relationship with her abducted children, and Innogen's stepmother thereby becoming an scheming Duke and avoiding the fairy tale stepmother cliché. The servant Pisanio is transformed into Kelly Williams' cheeky and self-confident Pisania. One of Innogen's lost brothers becomes Natalie Simpson's wild and free Guideria.

Designer Anna Fleischle has created a sparse set featuring parts of buildings that can be transformed from medieval towers sprayed with graffiti, covered by creepers with a tree stump in the centre. Video projections add to the the story telling when videoclips of Innogen and her siblings playing as children or the city of Rome are projected onto a big screen. A live band on elevated platforms on either side of the stage provide Dave Price's haunting and often beautiful soundtrack for the production. 

An outstanding production of a difficult and rarely performed play that should not be missed.

By Carolin Kopplin

Until 17th December 2016

Barbican Centre

Running time: 2 hours 25 minutes

Photographs by Ellie Kurttz.

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