Review: Cymbeline, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

“Fear no more the frown o’ the great”

You wait for a production of relatively little-performed Shakespeare play and then three come along in the same year. Melly Still is doing Cymbeline for the RSC in the summer, Emma Rice is reclaiming and renaming it Imogen for her inaugural season at the Globe and inside at the same venue, it is being performed as part of a run of the Bard’s late plays in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, directed by Sam Yates.

Ah yes, the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. I’ve not been much of a fan of this theatre, for purely practical reasons rather than artistic ones, but with this programming that has allowed me to tick off Pericles and see Rachael Stirling, Niamh Cusack and John Light onstage, I’ve succumbed to a rash of bookings. With that, I’ve opted to be brutally honest about the experiences as a paying customer.

This time, I was in B18 in the upper gallery (£26) with the warning “pillar directly in sightline”. The pillar wasn’t too much of issue, as they rarely are, as the action is always moving around, the key difference (and rationale from the price hike from £10 for the properly restricted view seats) is the positioning. Being more or less end on to the stage makes a world of difference and well worth the extra. It’s still not the perfect seat but probably about as good a bargain as you’ll get here. 

As for the play, it just isn’t the thing for me. A batshit plot featuring “cross-dressing, decapitation, a god that descends from the heavens, confusion about potions, and an almost farcical series of redemptive reunions” may pleased many a critic who teased out panto allusions given the time of year it opened (maybe it was the eggnog) but I just found it odd once again. And with a tone that emphasises the low comedy, encouraging a snorting audience, it’s quite a bizarre thing to sit through. 

And even with a good quality cast, it never quite lands satisfactorily. Overstating the comedy undermines the rest of the play and so they’re fighting a losing battle from the off. Jonjo O’Neill’s titular king and Emily Barber’s Innogen aren’t able to generate the passion to make us buy into their grand romance, the villainy rarely kicks above cartoonish and in the end, the stage of the Sam Wanamaker just doesn’t seem ideal for this type of comic playing. At least I could see it this time. 

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval) 
Booking until 21st April 

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