Cymbeline is not the most frequently staged play in the Shakespeare canon, and it is not hard to imagine why. The plot of this tale of revenge, betrayal, jealousy, forgiveness and mistaken identity, set in Roman Britain, is so convoluted that no less than 25 loose ends have to be cleared up in the last scene, and many episodes are a potential minefield for the unwary producer who could end up with a farce rather than a romantic tragedy on his hands.
In this production by Adrian Noble, some of the more preposterous twists are played for laughs, and this is not necessarily the best way of dealing with them. However, other difficult episodes are carried through with much more panache. The visitation of Zeus is impressive, and the battle scenes are splendidly done, with lots of shadow-play and waving of giant silk banners. The scene where Imogen awakes clutching a headless corpse she believes to be her dead husband is so gruesome it verges on burlesque, but here the heroine's distress is harrowing and genuinely moving to watch and her face realistically bloodied.
And there are high points of pure delight - the dirge “Fear no more the heat o the sun” is one of the loveliest things in Shakespeare. The two boys who sing it are princes who have been brought up as Welsh rustics in a cave, and they are played with endearing gauchery and joie de vivre by Jo Stone-Fewings and Richard Cant. Jo Pearce's Imogen is also gauche - she bounds about the stage like an excited and awkward puppy - but as she is meant to be a princess brought up in a court not a cave, this is less endearing.
Edward Petherbridge, as her father Cymbeline, is, however, exactly right - a man who has long since lost his inner strength of purpose and authority but still bears all the outward dignity of kingship. Damian Lewis plays Posthumus, Imogen's illicitly-wed husband, as an effective counterpoint, with plenty of masculine vigour. The villains of the piece ham it up a mite too much. Guy Henry has fun with the role of the grotesque and doltish Cloten, Imogen's suitor - sometimes at the cost of getting across the character's vileness - while Paul Freeman's smoothie Iachimo is rather reminscent of Donald Sinden as portrayed on Spitting Image.
The Samurai style of the set and costumes, designed by Anthony Ward, are strangely effective, although the little geishas mincing across the set were a step too far. The great sail which billows at the back of the stage, acting as a scene-changer a backdrop, even a cave entrance, works wonderfully well.
Overall, this is a very intriguing production. There are a few errors of judgment, but the RSC s efforts to stage Cymbeline are nevertheless admirable and worth seeing.
Birna Helgadottir, March 1998