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Five reasons to see Cymbeline

Published 4 November 2016

The RSC have brought a funky, fantastical version of Cymbeline to the Barbican this season. Never heard of it? That might be because this late play is extremely odd and rarely produced, seen as too unwieldy to make coherent sense to a modern audience.

Director Melly Still has blown all of these theories out of the water, creating a joyful, colourful show that embraces all its foibles and brings it bang up to date. Here are a few reasons why you should be booking tickets:

It’s got a stonking female protagonist

Innogen refuses to be a victim and keeps on going, despite everything.

RSC Cymbeline. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Innogen is the play’s central character, an English princess downtrodden by her parents and betrayed by her exiled husband. Bethan Cullinane beautifully demonstrates each nuance of her character, creating a fully-rounded, realistic woman – able to be fearful, angry, witty and courageous all at once. She also manages to make the scene where she wakes up and embraces the headless corpse of what she presumes is her husband (told you it was weird) surprisingly moving.

It’s like Shakespeare’s greatest hits collection

Basically, if you’re too lazy to see loads of Shakespeare but want to be able to brag about it, this is the one to watch.

RSC Cymbeline. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Classified as a late play, Cymbeline is both praised and criticised for its inclusion of many themes seen throughout Shakespeare’s work; Posthumus’ descent into jealously is reminiscent of Othello, the threat of foreign war similar to Henry V. Throw in the early-Britain King Lear setting, A Winter’s Tale-style family reunion and a sprinkling of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and you’ve got a vibrant hotchpotch of genres. Melly Still has embraced all of them, knitting together the divergent elements into a seamless whole.

It’s totally relevant to a modern audience

It’s got everything you could want: Brexit, sex and family drama.

RSC Cymbeline. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Given the fact that the text references Ancient Roman politics, and includes a surprise visit from Jupiter, you may be forgiven for thinking that it’s not going to be easy to relate to. Not so! Set in a dystopian future, the world of the play is an isolated, withered Britain, steadfastly refusing to do service to the greater powers on the continent. Seem familiar?

Plus, mixed in with the poetry are lines that seem so modern, you’d think they’re modern additions. They’re not. Delivered deadpan, they make for some of the funniest moments of the play.

And if nothing else, even the most ardent anti-Shakespearean cannot fail to note the sex references, which appear everywhere. And I mean, EVERYWHERE.  

It’s got a fabulous anti-hero

Oliver Johnstone’s brilliantly suave scoundrel steals the show.

RSC Cymbeline. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Though he gets it together around Act 4, Posthumus can seem a weak-willed and irrational character. The protagonist-shaped hole is filled instead by Iachimo, the slippery tongued Italian who gains false proof of Innogen’s infidelity. Oliver Johnstone does a triumphant turn in the role, a perfect stereotype of the smooth-talking, Italian playboy, strutting around the stage in white chinos and shades. His visit to Innogen’s bedroom should really be disturbing, but Johnstone makes sympathise with his own personal struggle, rather than the highly dubious morality of his actions. You may find yourself feeling genuinely sorry for him by the end.

It’s absolutely bonkers

Just go with it, guys.

RSC Cymbeline. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

In case it isn’t obvious, this is a pretty crazy play. Shakespeare gives us 30 revelations in the final scene, and only one of them is a surprise to the audience. Directors can try and dial it down, but ultimately the mayhem wins out. Melly Still throws caution to the wind and just embraces the absurdity, finding magic and humour in the most unlikely of places. A vibrant and noisy riot, this production is an utter delight from start to finish.


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