A few years ago you couldn't move for productions of Othello. Then it was Macbeth. Right now it’s Cymbeline; soon to be seen outdoors at The Globe (in a reworked version) and at the RSC and currently playing indoors at the The Globe in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.
Cymbeline tells the story of the titular legendary King of the Britons and his daughter Innogen/Imogen (this production uses the former so that’s what I'm using too, I'm not getting into that debate). More accurately, it tells Innogen’s story in which Cymbeline is a peripheral character; the title is a total red herring. I'm not going to try and explain the plot in any detail because I’d be here for days - it’s a bit of a beast. The main plot device is very familiar though: a loyal husband is driven to near-madness by his wife’s wrongly perceived infidelity.
I have to admit my expectations weren't high for this play - I tend to think that if I've not heard of a piece of Shakespeare then there’s probably a very good reason for that (because it’s all about me) - but I was exceptionally pleasantly surprised. A rarely performed (except at the moment) tragicomedy, Cymbeline is a fantastically engaging and affecting piece with some great characters and memorable verse. For me, it’s more effective as a comedy than a tragedy and as such it’s a surprisingly playful piece written, it seems to me, with a knowing wink in the direction of its convoluted plot and pantomime villains. It’s no Othello, but neither is it trying to be. It’s quite refreshing.
It helps that this production is ace - spry, wry and exceptionally clear. Director Sam Yates whips the action along with tongue appropriately in or out of cheek throughout. The plot, which would be difficult to follow if handled with less skill, is always front, centre and correctly paced. The verse is spoken with a uniformity of clarity that contributes to that too. And there’s no question that best use is made of the stunning Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and the full range of its period features (no spoilers, but the use of the upper trap door in particular is fantastically dramatic). The fight scenes are great too, despite the obvious limitations of the teeny tiny SWP. I think this is by some way the most authentically - and satisfyingly - Shakespearean Shakespeare I've ever seen.
The cast is also fantastic. First of all, can we all just note how cool it is that the King and Queen are played by Geoffrey the butler from The Fresh Prince (Joseph Marcel, who is excellent) and Mrs Doyle from Father Ted (Pauline McLynn, very funny but a bit too pantomime for my taste)? Good. It’s the younger cast members who own the show though, especially relative newcomer Emily Barber who is really exceptional as a righteous, funny Innogen. One to watch right there. Other highlights include Jonjo O’Neill, who is earnest without being boring as Posthumus, particularly affecting as the death seeking nihilist that the character descends into, and Eugene O’Hare (who deserves MAJOR PROPS for performing, on crutches, despite a broken foot) as an enjoyably slimy, villainous Iachimo whose ultimate redemption is very well handled - credible, touching, completely free of syrup. The whole cast is fantastic though - it’s a genuinely top drawer (and pleasingly diverse) ensemble. And crammed full of hotties with regional accents too, which is a thing that I for one wish to encourage.
Overall then, highly recommended. Ignore any preconceptions you might have about little known Shakespeare, go along and enjoy. Oh, and if you can have dinner in The Swan beforehand. Their pre-theatre menu is excellent. Look out for the treacle tart.
Cymbeline plays in rep at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at Shakespeare’s Globe until April 21st.