“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.