A lot happens in the Bard’s late play Cymbeline. A lot. There’s cross-dressing; long-lost brothers; wayward daughters; terrible step-mothers; cuckolds; fidelity tests; war; banishing and a beheading. Oh, and there’s an on-high visit from king of the gods Jupiter, too. If you like your Shakespeare action-packed, then Cymbeline is undoubtedly the play for you.
The main plot (let’s try to keep things simple) follows the love-story between Innogen and Posthumous. The titular Cymbeline, based on the semi-fictional king from ancient Britain, is betrayed by his daughter Innogen who marries Posthumous instead of her step-brother. Banished by the king, Posthumous enters into a wager with a scoundrel Iachimo over the fidelity of his new wife and decides to bump her off when Iachimo produces evidence that he’s seduced her. When Innogen finds out Posthumous thinks she is false, she runs off into the woods, dressed as a boy, where she inadvertently discovers her brothers, who had been lost twenty years ago.
Cymbeline could easily compete with pantomime in the OTT levels of drama, but there’s a beautiful balance within Shakespeare’s script. Cymbeline’s journey from angry king to wise king has grace and there’s touching heartache in Innogen and Posthumous’ situation. Like Pericles, the last play in the candlelit Sam Wanamaker Playhouse season, Cymbeline often masquerades as a comedy, but there’s tragedy, joy, sexual darkness (prince Cloten talks several times about raping Innogen) and high romance here too. It’s a play of all genres.
The last production I saw of Cymbeline at the Globe was Mike Alfreds’ radical and brilliant 2001 staging starring Mark Rylance. Alfreds embraced and enhanced the madness by having a cast of only six (there are at least 16 characters) who all wore the same simple white suits and no shoes. In comparison with that, director Sam Yates plays it safe. These are period costumes and he stays well away from too many double-ups. It makes for a gently satisfying production, rather than a dynamic one. It’s also not until the second half that Yates brings out the comedy – Emily Barber as the crop-haired Innogen hiding in the woods is particularly good – which means the first half occasionally drags.
But this is a great ensemble cast, lead by Barber – who really comes into her own in the second half – and an excellent Jonjo O’Neill as the severe Posthumous. Joseph Marcell is also very strong as the weighty Cymbeline. A mention must come also for Pauline McLynn and her exceptionally game comedy turn as the queen, along with her hilarious and brave take on Jupiter (she is literally winched down from the roof). It’s one of the highlights of a production that is full of surprises.
Cymbeline runs at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare's Globe until April 21.