Cymbeline review – Shakespeare’s knotty romance is a fabulous farewell for Doran

Royal Shakespeare theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Departing artistic director Greg Doran reinvigorates this tale of a royal family in crisis with clarity and intelligence

The president of the Royal Shakespeare Company, King Charles III, may be bemused by the company premiering, pre-Coronation, a play about an English king in a contentious second marriage and in which an “oath of loyalty” becomes an issue. Republican mischief seems unlikely: Cymbeline was scheduled as the RSC farewell to departing artistic director Greg Doran, who is finally staging the only Shakespeare play to elude him.

As a second leaving present, Doran has published a tremendous textbook-memoir, My Shakespeare, explaining how rehearsals start with the cast paraphrasing each line in modern speech, sealing meanings to be revealed in verse. That must have been tough with Cymbeline, a very late play with knotted poetry and a plot so convoluted that some productions add an onstage narrator.

Peter De Jersey as Cymbeline.
Peter De Jersey as Cymbeline. Photograph: Ellie Kurttz

A triumph for Doran’s method is that there is never doubt about who is or pretending to be whom. And his scholarly attention to text is shown by an unusual division into three sections. In The Wager, the exiled Posthumus accepts in Italy a creepy challenge that his England-held wife Imogen will not succumb to an attempted seduction by nobleman Iachimo. The second section, Wales, features the sex bet’s consequences, comic and gruesome, around a Milford Haven cave. The War somehow coheres the bizarre last six scenes where, through human confusion or divine intervention (dazzling gilded design by Stephen Brimson Lewis), identities flip and the “dead” wed.

Doran’s book points out that Cymbeline holds the record for asides in Shakespeare, 10 characters catching our eye. Doran uses these intimacies to engage the audience, also raising the possibility that Shakespeare had reached the end of theatre and was prophesying the interior perspectives of novels (still a century away in English). So troubling in this staging is Jamie Wilkes’ devilish Iachimo, creeping around a sleeping woman to collect sexual “evidence”, that it suggests Shakespeare sensing the hot breath of John Webster, who would own that dark tone.

Peter De Jersey’s Cymbeline unselfishly suggests weakness and illness, speech clotted with coughs, until unleashing glorious full voice as power shifts. Amber James’ Imogen is plausible in love and war, challenging the potentially misogynistic plot by being more rebel than victim. Conor Glean’s comically cocky prince Cloten is a proto-Brexiter, hymning Britain’s manly isolation.

If the new king comes to see his RSC in this, he will, after the uneasy dysfunctional family stuff, enjoy Cymbeline’s prediction of a Britain that will “flourish in peace and plenty”, although (spoiler) only after European reunion. Giving up his crown, Doran leaves future Shakespeare directors a model of clarity and intelligence in reinvigorating classics.


Mark Lawson

The GuardianTramp

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