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What: Cymbeline by William Shakespeare

Where: The Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-Upon-Avon (RST)

When: 22nd April-27 May, 2023

Who: The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC)

An excellent production!!

But that does need some explanation and clarification.

What do we have here?

A long performance weighing in at nearly three and a half hours.

A performance in traditional dress. There could not be much more that would make the costumes more traditional.

A company and cast where there are really no experimental or surprising twists in terms of gender or sexuality. And that really is exceptional these days with the RSC.

And the return of director emeritus, Greg Doran to the director’s chair to deliver all of this – which is a startling contrast to the trend of productions he styled when he was the full-time artistic director.

So, when I say this is an excellent production is this just the reactionary response of a Shakespearean traditionalist to a move away from what has been the predominant mode of play representations in recent years?

After all in recent months, I have chosen to skip involvement in reviewing some Shakespeare plays at Stratford-Upon-Avon for the first time in nearly two decades. I chose not to be there for “The Tempest” or for “Julius Caesar” and I won’t be in the town of Shakespeare’s birthplace for “As You Like It”.

Those decisions I must admit have arisen from me becoming more than a little tired of the productions at the RST.

The reviews of “The Tempest” from those who did attend emphasised the great strength of leading character actress Alex Kingston, but I couldn’t see how a play where a young woman stranded on a magic island speaks these lines:

“I do not know
One of my sex; no woman’s face remember,
Save, from my glass” (Act III, Scene 1)

would benefit from having a female lead in the usually male role of Prospero.

As I mentioned I passed on the production of “Julius Caesar” and then read reviews from press night of a messy, untidy production and many regular members of public saying they left at the interval and didn’t come back. One and two star reviews seemed to abound.

And the upcoming “As You Like It”? Well, I’ve always imagined this play was about young love, and this year 90% of the cast will be actors over 70. Most bewildering.

And so, with Shakespeare at the moment the only productions that are experimental are those which don’t twist gender and sex, those who don’t change the text, or make elaborate cuts to the length of the play with scenes and key lines disappearing.

William Shakespeare is the greatest playwright who ever lived. Now, let’s improve him. Imagine him if he was a writer from the 21st century.

What to do?

But it isn’t the conventionaity that makes this “Cymbeline” such a good one.

In terms of the tradtional costumes, it is easy to pick holes. Alexandra Gilbreath as the Queen has hair design which might bear a certain resemblance to certain films featuring Cruella De Vil. It is her acting, not her costume that it is her strength.

The citizens who meet in Rome, and discuss the moral virtues of Imogen do rather resemble the Bee Gees of 1978. The members of the army of the Britons do at times look like extras from Mel Gibson’s “Braveheart”.

The actor playing Belarius (Christian Patterson) in his home in Wales could pass for Brian Blessed in Flash Gordon at first glance:

So, whilst the costume is good, it is not the cause for celebration.

The fact that the text is not complicated by a man playing a woman’s role, or vice versa, is in my view, an advantage. Some plays will bear this, but not all the time and a previous production of Cymbeline here attempted those switches:

Even the return of Mr Doran cannot entirely be responsible. His tenure produced many of the imbalances that I mentioned and a 50/50 balance between the good runs and the bad – again, entirely in my opinion.

No, the hallmark of the play’s quality is found paramountly in the acting. The production is long, and we need to re-educate ourselves in the stamina of staying with a play length that was commonplace during Shakespeare’s lifetime.

High points? The performance of Amber James as Imogen and Fidele. Her acting is pure gold on every level.

Her sweetness as Imogen means you believe why Ed Sayer as Posthumous Leonatus loves her. The actor next to her in the photo, Jamie Wilkes playing Iachimo is the very embodiment of convincing evil and guilt, but again we understand why he would desire Imogen. Ed Sayer suffers from being the plainest of the costumes in the elaborate wardrobe, but his range of performance means he easily overomes this.

If Iachimo is convincingly wicked then the aforementioned Alexandra Gilbreath as the Queen runs him a close race. You truly understand her unravelling by the end of this saga.

Mark Hadfield as Pisanio provides a character who is believably devoted, and ultimately committed to those he serves.

Also, very worthy of mention from the “British” scenes is Peter De Jersey as the King, Cymbeline.

When we move over to Milford Haven, Wales, we find two more young, excellent character actors. Scott Gutteridge as Guiderius (Polydore), and Daf Thomas as Arviragus (Cadwal) are tremendous. The scene where they turn “Fear no more…” in a touching and affecting song earned a mid-play round of applause which was truly deserved in every way.

There were however a few actors who didn’t quite make the grade. The comedy in the play depends large on Conor Glean, playing Cloten. His body language is too broad and perhaps belongs more in Black Adder than Cymbeline.

Also, the well-cast Christian Patterson (Belarius) rather undid his physical presence at times by speaking too many of his lines with his back to the audience, causing his deep resonant (but somehow soft) tones to be swallowed before they reached the audience.

Jeff Alexander as the soothsayer had to battle with a costume which made him look anything but a wise man.

In terms of budget, the Jupiter scene towards the end was perhaps the most expensive, but was a good contrast to much of the staging. The final scene seemed to indicate that a few of the actors were nervous of the length of the play with some lines lost by being spoken too quickly – which is a shame, because if well done it can be a light-hearted and buoyant end to the final act.

So, all-in-all, the best RSC production since the outdoor, “The Comedy of Errors”, and one which if you have the stamina for 3 1/2 hours in the theatre, you should take the time to see!

(Notes: I could find no record of who plays Jupiter. Marcia Lecky who was due to play Dorothy and Mother was indisposed during recent performances)

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