“Hath Britain all the sun that shines?”
Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s later plays, occupying an uneasy middle ground between tragedy, romance, comedy with a loose smattering of history thrown in for good measure and thus garnering the reputation as one of his problem plays. New London-based theatre company Avanti have taken up the challenge with their 1970s re-imagining though which is currently playing at the Tabard Theatre in West London.
It’s essentially a romance, with tragic overtones, focusing on Imogen, a princess of Britain who has secretly married her lowly childhood friend Posthumus, frustrating the plans of her wicked (step)mother. 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 Wales in the guise of a boy, there she meets two random boys who turn out to have a very strong connection to her, more betrayals and murder ensue, there’s a bit of a war, the god Jupiter pops down for a chat and then there’s an incredibly neat, yet interminably long ending in which every single plot strand is recapped and then resolved.
Perhaps it is not the most considered of opinions but it is all a bit bonkers really, incorporating so many Shakespearean devices that are familiar to us from other plays – cross-dessing princesses, potions that feign death, long-lost children, wagers about virtue – and folding them all into the one huge narrative, but matters aren’t necessarily helped by some of the creative decisions.
It is set in a loose version of the 70s, all flares and flowery shirts, and in large part this is surprisingly effective: Posthumus’ defiance of society’s norm, Imogen’s rebellion against the convention’s of her parents’ generation, the singing of the young princes over a dead body feels a heartbeat away from Godspell, but these all fit well with the concept. It is less successful later on though when history kicks in as Rome invades Britain, some vaguely fascist-looking uniforms appearing lending a slightly surreal air.
The casting of veteran Ian Barritt as Cymbeline brings a certain gravitas and beautiful verse-speaking to the company but it casts the centre of gravity considerably askew given that he is probably twice the age of anyone else in the cast though the age range of characters is quite wide. For a company aspiring to give “the next generation” the opportunity to entertain, it seems an odd inclusion though he gives a strong performance as the cantankerous but kindly Cymbeline. And double-casting Spike Laurie as Posthumus and his rival Cloten also fell into the category of odd: it took me a while to figure it out to be honest and he has to work so hard, especially in the first half, constantly running into scenes buttoning up his change of shirt, all for a payoff in the second act that isn’t really worth it.
The youthful, if uneven, company do give it their all with a mixed bag of performances. Laurie is particularly strong as an appealing Posthumus, Rhys Jennings makes for a worldly, compassionate Belarius and Rhiannon Neads showed promise in a number of smaller supporting roles and Alex Critoph finds a quiet strength as Imogen too. But the structure of the play leaves some of the weaker performers more exposed, especially in the lengthy final scene, where the tone wavers dangerously close to farce at the expense of true emotional impact. Overall, the uncertainty of too many aspects of Giacomo Sain’s production means it never quite manages to convince of the true beauty or the lyrical quality of this problem play: indeed in this case, some of the problems are of his own making.