It is not really hard to see why Cymbeline is one of the lesser known works of the Bard. The story feels like a random selection of typical Shakespearean events, flung together haphazardly, and then tied up with a bow at the end in a rather laboured fashion. There’s cross-dressing princesses, wagers about virtue, long-lost princes, potions that feign death, wicked stepmothers, lifelong betrayals, all things that hark back to previous works and little that felt fresh here, not least because of the confusing tone of the play.
It’s essentially a romance, with tragic overtones, but not a comedy, something which ought to be whispered into the ear of one of the main performers.It starts with Imogen, a princess of Britain who has secretly married her lowly childhood friend Posthumus. Upon finding out, her father King Cymbeline banishes him from the kingdom, and thus a whole merry load of confusions start. Posthumus is tricked into believing Imogen has been unfaithful and orders her murder, Imogen is forewarned and dispatched to Britain in the guise of a boy, in Britain she meets two random boys who turn out to have a strong connection to her, more betrayals and murder ensue, the god Jupiter pops down for a chat whilst hanging off a tree and then there’s an incredibly neat, interminably long ending.
Yet even with the issues around the source material, the production itself made life difficult by also being very confused. The main problem for me was the lack of consistency in the direction. On the very limited space of the Arts Theatre stage, simplicity has to be the key, yet a bewildering array of technical effects were utilised here, often just for a few seconds and then never again. Projections, animations, a live band, shadow-play, voice-overs, lighting, songs were all used in a scattershot effect throughout, with varying degrees of success it must be said, but none of them were used sufficiently to create a theme across the whole production, giving a really disjointed feel. One wonders if the inspiration of the NT’s recent All Well’s That Ends Well proved too hard to resist, despite the huge disparity in stage size.
And tonally, I felt too much was made of the humour. It didn’t feel like a comedy, and it wasn’t presented like a comedy, but time after time, they went for the cheap laugh instead of focusing on the humanity of the story, and so it was hard to connect emotionally to much of the piece. That said Rosie Samsom as Imogen and Ned Derrington as Pisario gave two very strong performances which did focus on the more human sides of their characters, and Luke McEwan’s swagger (and impressive hairy chest!) as the titular king belied his apparent youth.
Finally to end, two minor quibbles: £5 for a programme seems very excessive, and it really bugs me when the image used to publicise a show bears no relation to the actual production. I don’t know quite how I thought they would introduce bubblewrap into Shakespeare, but I can’t see what the connection was to make them think this was a suitable publicity still.