RSC review: A cluttered yet compelling insight into Brexit Britain with Cymbeline

Bethan Cullinane as Innogen. Picture: Ellie Kurttz
Bethan Cullinane as Innogen. Picture: Ellie Kurttz

Peter Ormerod reviews Cymbeline at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford

Some say it’s a tragedy. Others call it a comedy. It’s also described as a romance.

Whatever it is, Cymbeline is difficult. One of Shakespeare’s lesser known works, it’s lengthy in duration, heavy on plot and seemingly unsure quite what it is.

All of which probably lies at the heart of this production’s greatest strengths and deepest flaws. Nominally set in a curious mixture of Roman Britain and Renaissance Italy, it draws on an ancient folk tale of the eponymous British king - a queen in this production - two of whose children were stolen at birth and a third, Innogen, who becomes subject to the rival attentions of three men of varying unpleasantness. There’s cross-dressing, sleeping potions, political skulduggery and decapitation, punctuated by the occasional burst of inspired poetry.

To their great credit, director Melly Still and her team get the rather convoluted story across well. It’s pacy, energetic and generally compelling.

But in their efforts to hold the attention of the audience, so much has been thrown at the production that it sometimes seems cluttered: passages are translated into Italian, French and Latin; two scenes are heralded by slightly ill-fitting music, one a Euro-dance number (those Italians, eh?) and the other an amorous r’n’b pastiche. Britain is a paranoid concrete dystopia; illustrations and lines of text are projected on to the background. Some of these ideas may well be good, but they are ill-served by their very abundance.

More troubling is that the uncertain tone renders some deeply unsettling scenes - especially those of sexual violence - vaguely comical, while genuinely comic notes are sometimes missed. And we are left feeling grateful indeed for Bethan Cullinane, whose Innogen holds the whole thing together with an immense likeability approached only by Graham Turner’s earthy Balarius, Natalie Simpson’s wild Guideria and James Cooney’s warm Arviragus.

But the timing of the production, imbued as it is with a sense of Britain’s uneasy relationship with its European cousins, its independent spirit vying with its desire for security, could not be more apposite. On its own terms, this rather overloaded production of a tortuous play may not be a must-see, but it’s worth investigating for those looking for a fresh insight into our nation’s current state.

* Cymbeline runs until October 15. Call 01789 403493 to book.