Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Melly Still's adaptation of Shakespeare’s coming-of-age romance, Cymbeline.

Britain is in crisis. Alienated, insular and on the brink of a disaster – can it be saved? No, I’m not talking about a new state-of-the-nation post-Brexit play but Shakespeare’s coming-of-age romance, Cymbeline (RSC at the Barbican Theatre after transferring from the Swan in Stratford), retold by director Melly Still for the 21st century.

Cymbeline rules over a divided Britain. When Innogen, the only living heir marries her sweetheart Posthumus in secret, an enraged Cymbeline banishes him. Behind the throne, a figure plots to seize power by murdering them both, in exile; Innogen’s husband is trickled into believing she has been unfaithful, forcing her away from court on a journey fraught with danger.

Director Melly Still can’t resist messing about with Shakespeare. In place of Roman Britain, the play is set in a dystopian future, with radical changes, the biggest being the title character has changed gender and is now a queen bestriding her country in a cloak made of a grain sacks, while Innogen’s wicked stepmother has become a conniving duke, her faithful servant is the punk-haired Pisanio and one of her abducted brothers has been turned into the sisterly Guideria. All this however, does not manage to derail the drama and indeed those not familiar with the work will find it all quite convincing, although overlong at 3½ hours. What is unnecessary are some silly touches that Still has unwisely inserted – a minor villain’s attempts to serenade Innogen becomes a choreographed temptations-style Motown number and Imperial Rome, the setting for a couple of key scenes, is imagined as a VIP room in a gay disco, while some of the scene involving the Romans are played in Italian with surtitles.    

However, the production never loses touch with the emotional core of the play, which emerges unscathed and Shakespeare’s study of power, jealously, betrayed, sexuality and identity still resonates. As a story of the reconciliation between a mother and her lost children, the production hits the right notes without being overdramatic or sentimental.

Gillian Bevan brings considerable stage presence to the role of Cymbeline, while Hiran Abeysekera is convincing as the commoner Posthumus and Natalie Simpson makes a splash as Guideria and Marcus Griffiths is a brash, headstrong Cloten, Cymbeline stepson who has been earmarked to marry Innogen.

But it is Bethan Cullinane who gives the best performance and holds the play together as the chaste heroine Innogen, tragically separated from her husband.


Is playing at the Barbican’s RSC until 17 December 2016

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