Cymbeline is notoriously hard to pull off, and consequently very rarely done. It was 2016 when the RSC last tackled it, and its previous effort was a full decade before that. It’s fitting, then, that Doran – incredibly in his 50th outing as a director for the company – should wrestle with this leviathan of nonsense as his parting gift.
The reason for its notoriety is that it’s a riotous mess. It has been likened to a kind of Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits, with elements of earlier plays chucked in to entertain an audience familiar with his back catalogue. Thus we get stolen children, a cross-dressing daughter, Roman battle scenes and a king haunted by madness side by side in a quasi-historical mash-up that lurches from high melodrama to low farce. There’s a headless corpse, an evil queen and even the god Jupiter descending from the heavens.
But if you want a director with a razor-sharp instinct for storytelling clarity, then Doran’s your man. This is as clear a rendition of the complex interwoven elements as you could wish for, and the neat parcelling into three distinct sections – while making the whole thing hugely long at nearly three-and-a-half hours – works superbly.
With the narrative lines so prominently drawn, the cast are allowed to play, and by and large they have enormous fun. Alexandra Gilbreath has a ball reinventing the wicked queen as Cruella de Vil, Peter de Jersey – sweetly, a veteran of Doran’s first RSC production – hams it up joyfully in the title role, and Jamie Wilkes once again proves his strengths as a Shakespearean in the tricky part of Iachimo, which calls for both villainous scheming and genuine pathos.
Gravitas comes in the shape of Amber James as Imogen, Cymbeline’s daughter, whose journey is both accomplished and touching, and Mark Hadfield as the devoted servant Pisanio, making something truly moving out of some unlikely raw material.
The vast company is brilliantly served by a stunning technical and creative team. Stephen Brimson Lewis’s mighty set is overtopped by a giant orb that serves variously as the sun, the moon and, in a thrilling coup de theatre, the throne of Jupiter. Matt Daw’s lighting complements it perfectly, rendering deep blues, jade greens and vibrant oranges and yellows with striking beauty, while the ever-reliable Paul Englishby’s folk-infused score is both subtle and sublime.
It remains a riotous mess – inappropriate laughter frequently demonstrating that even the audience don’t quite know what to make of it all – but as a swansong from the man who has steered the RSC through some turbulent years, it stands as a pretty fine finale.