Cymbeline: The RSC’s bold revamp is full of passion and humour ★★★

The eponymous king is recast as a queen in the Royal Shakespeare Company's compelling production - now at London's Barbican Centre


Stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order. Not the words of this reviewer but one George Bernard Shaw no less, who was so irked by the final act that he wrote his own ending. But modern audiences have been more engaged by Shakespeare’s late period experimental romance, and this is the third production to hit the London stage this year.  


Director Melly Still’s RSC transfer makes some bold changes, not least reshaping the titular monarch from a gracious but weak king into a bestriding queen – a gentrified militaristic figurehead decked out in a peculiar mash-up of khakis and waistcoat. It works, and her mother/daughter relationship with Innogen lends a different quality to their familial conflict.


Gillian Bevan as Cymbeline (photos by Ellie Kurttz)

It’s Innogen who opens the tale, having secretly married the commoner Posthumus and defied the machinations of her villainous stepfather (now a dishevelled academic-like duke), who wishes her wed to his son, the equally despicable Cloten. Upon discovering the tryst Cymbeline banishes Posthumus to exile, where he encounters Iachimo, a lothario who wagers to disprove Innogen’s faithfulness by seducing her.

The attempted corruption of the virtuous princess draws together a motley crew of spurned lovers, stolen children, Roman armies, and even Jupiter himself, in a latticework of deceit and love which, though at times convoluted (or bafflingly unexplained), never fails to entertain.

It’s the strength of the performances that really make this production, and the cast’s ability to draw out the underlying humour in every situation goes a long way to negating the flaws in the original text.

 Book tickets for Cymbeline from the Radio Times box office

Oliver Johnstone is brilliant as the suave, silver-tongued Iachimo, strutting about the stage and wearing all of his sexual potency on his sleeve. Some of the best scenes come when he focuses his scheming charm on the faithful Innogen, skilfully played by Bethan Cullinane. Marcus Griffith also manages to find much comic absurdity in the overblown ego of the otherwise contemptible Cloten. But these are compelling performances among many.

The one jarring aspect is the set. The decision to hurl events into some unspecified dystopian near-future is hard to understand and the graffitied urban backdrop doesn’t add anything to the themes played out within. Aside from being able to market it as a foretelling of a “divided Britain” with “echoes of Brexit”, which is more than a stretch, it’s difficult to countenance the choice.

It may not be one of the best-loved of the Bard’s canon, but this production is full of passion and humour, and is riotous fun.

Stagey trash it certainly isn’t. Sorry George. 

Cymbeline is at the Barbican until 17 December

Book tickets for Cymbeline from the Radio Times box office

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