Review: Cymbeline at the RSC

There is nothing disastrously wrong with the RSC production of Cymbeline and yet you leave the theatre with the sensation that it could certainly have been done better.

First of all, it is the irritating feeling that some of the changes were made for the sake of changing. Yes, I am referring to the gender of the characters. Billington (2016) in his review for The Guardian said it did not bother him and I am sure it would not bother me if I saw any reason why Cymbeline would be a queen instead of a King. The argument that such change gives more emphasize to the pain suffered by the loss of the twins does not convince me at all since Gillian Bevan’s performance can hardly be call particularly ‘maternal’, either in her relationship with Innogen or in the reunion with the lost children. I could not feel that emotions she displayed would be showed by a mother but not by a loving father. Moreover, the gender swap between the royal couple creates the figure of the Duke (Innogen stepfather), who is presented in a totally unconvincing position. I cannot stop asking myself why such a relatively young, fit, scheming, and power seeking man, who is in a position so close to supreme authority, would go to such lengths to put his less than capable son on the throne instead of grabbing it to himself.

Having said that, I find the transformation of Pisanio into Pisania much less problematic since being so close and intimate to Innogen it would make sense that the servant shared the same gender with the mistress – a sort of Brianne of Tar/ Sansa Stark relationship. The gender change of Guiderio into Guideria seems the least relevant of all these and Natalie Simpson does a great job on the role. She lends humour and empathy to the character. Although she starts her delivered of the ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ sounding a little insecure, she does get hold of the lines as the dirge progresses.

Yet, Melly Still’s combined sex changes lead to a gender unbalance in the production that is rather un-Shakespearean. Suddenly the most active and dominant characters in the play are females: the legendary queen (Cymbeline), the lovely main character (Innogen), the faithful servant (Pisania), and the bravest and most likeable child (Guideria). On the other hand, all main male characters are despicable for one reason or another: the treacherous Duke, the kidnapper (Philario), the feeble, jealous, and easily manipulated husband (Posthumus), and Cymbeline supposedly oafish stepson (Cloten).

Cloten does deserve some special consideration.  Despite being indeed unsophisticated and violent, Marcus Griffiths’ performance makes Cloten far more engaging and entertaining than the bore Posthumus.  Not to mention the Motown version of the serenade scene that was by far the highlight of the evening. Hiran Abeysekera may be a young actor with some potential but I found his performance of Posthumus dull and unpersuasive.  At some point in the play I found myself echoing Cloten’s words when he asks how Innogen could have chosen Posthumus to him.  Bethan Cullinane’s take on Innogen is commendable as she could deliver both the comic and tragic moments very compellingly. It is a shame that she was not given a more competent partner that could match her acting skills.

Also laudable is Oliver Johnstone as Iachimo, despite his cringe worthy Italian accent. Which reminds me of another aspect of the production that is still puzzling me: I cannot see the point in translating the text into Italian, Spanish, French and Latin. It seems that both Still and her creative team have forgotten that one of the reasons audiences go to the theatre is to ‘hear’ Shakespeare and experience the words being delivered instead of just read them. However, considerable chunks of the text had to be projected on the walls so we could understand what the characters were saying. And thus the experience of hearing Shakespeare became once again the experience of reading it. Moreover, I found this a profound disregard for those in the audience with poor French, less Italian and no Latin, as well as a lack of consideration for those who occupy seats with restricted views of the wall where the English text was projected.

Going back to the beginning; there is nothing disastrously wrong with the RSC production of Cymbeline but there are a series of misguided choices, doubtful casting, and unjustifiable decisions that have considerably compromised my enjoyment of the play.