An energetic performance pulsing with vitality, Cymbeline takes the audience on a non-stop three hour rollercoaster ride that assaults the senses. The RSC have given Shakespeare’s play, originally set in ancient Rome, a twisted 21st century facelift. As the play starts, Queen Cymbeline is a monarch presiding over a fractured country and a dysfunctional family – “all is outward sorrow”. What ensues is an outburst of love, pride, envy and war peppered with groovy dancing and exciting musical numbers.
Despite its title, the play really centres on Cymbeline’s daughter, Imogen, who is superbly played by Bethan Cullinane. Imogen is forbidden from marrying her love, Posthumus, and her mother wants her to marry her step-brother Cloten instead. Banished from court, Posthumus finds himself in Rome, betting the slimy Iachimo that he will not be able to seduce Imogen such is her unwavering faithfulness. In Iachimo, played by Oliver Johnstone, we see the play’s other stand-out performance. Detestable as his envious, lust-driven character is, Johnstone creates a tension on stage that is remarkable to witness. Add to this heady mix mistaken identity, strained diplomatic relations, dysfunctional familial relationships, long hidden secrets and conspiring relatives and you have yourself one of the more unusual pieces of theatre available in London at the moment.
Throughout the years, critics have been unsure what to make of Cymbeline compared with Shakespeare’s other works. Some find it ridiculously far-fetched, some think it is genius, whilst others suggest it is a complete self-parody. Whatever your opinion may be, the RSC prove to be the best pair of hands in which to place this sometimes whimsical, sometimes deeply emotional, sometimes disturbing work. Embracing the plot twists and high-octane drama, the company put across a fantastically entertaining spectacle. It climaxes in a stunning final scene in which the characters reveal a total of thirty secrets which tie up the unbelievable series of events.
The design is spectacular and greatly adds to the production; a graffiti-covered, brutalist concrete set transforms in an instant to a roman courtyard, complete with a statue of a Roman god sporting a neon halo. Later, a Welsh swamp-cave easily accommodates the change to become what is essentially a war zone. The striking differences between the scenes add to the sense of unrest throughout Cymbeline, echoing the themes of political unrest and national disaccord – feelings that don’t seem too unfamiliar.
Flamboyant dance routines and songs would, then, seem like an odd addition to the production but somehow they work; although there are sharp changes in tone, they never seem to be unnecessarily or inexplicably fragmented. Instead, they either lighten the feel or enrich the pathos of a scene. Coupled with dialogues fuelled with envy, lust, anger or love, the overall effect manages to balance the mood whilst retaining its excitement and vitality.
The Romans shake their hips, the Englishmen shake their heads, the youngsters rebel, the old grow weary. With tickets from £10 and the show running into late December, Cymbeline at the Barbican promises to be a riotous evening of theatre encompassing the whole spectrum of human emotion and folly. Well worth a watch.