Think me cynical, if you must, but I’m always slightly wary when the programme for a show tells me more about the philosophies underpinning the production than it does about the cast. Theatre Set-up is celebrating 33 years of professional touring Shakespeare productions in eight different countries with one of the later and less often performed plays – Cymbeline.
This is set in Britain at the time of the Roman conquest but has a hefty dose of folk lore and legend, not to mention a slug of Boccaccio’s Decameron, inserted into a story derived ultimately from Holinshed. The progamme notes tell you much more than you need to know about Celtic symbolism, mythology and alchemic practices. There are only eight players, which leads to some interesting role doubling.
If you don’t really know the play, it turns on a wicked step-mother and he ambitions, a princess who chooses her own husband and that husband’s too-simple belief in her faithlessness when cozened by the 16th century’s favourite villain – a Machiavellian Italian. There are banishments, a king who cannot see when he is being deceived, murders and (omitted for the performance I saw) ghostly interventions. If you sense Lear, Macbeth and Othello near at hand, I think you’d be right.
Best of the performances are those of Emily Outred as Imogen, Tony Portacio as both Posthumus (Imogen’s husband) and Cloten (her oafish step-brother and would-be spouse) and Richard Sanderson as the malevolent Iachimo and Polydore/Guiderius. This is a play with a great deal of narrative in between spurts of action and requires verse-speaking of a calibre, which quite frankly it didn’t always receive.
In the lengthy exchange between two of Cymbeline’s courtiers which opens the play, Richard Plumley managed to sound both interested and natural. And Elizabeth Arends made a neat and contrasting double performance as Pisanio, Posthumous’ servant and Cadwal/Arviragus, the younger of the king’s two abducted and disguised sons.
Who’s who for any scene is conveyed through costume – terracotta for the Romans, green for the Celts – and wigs. Lots of wigs. The designers are Kim Jones, Evelyn Cousins and Andrew Fisher. I have a feeling that the production, by artistic director Wendy Macphee and Portacio, would have appeared to better effect out-of-doors – which is the norm for Theatre Set-Up – rather than in a conventional theatre.