Cymbeline (Royal Shakespeare Theatre)
Melly Still's production grabs the attention and rarely lets go
It's been a decade since the RSC tackled Shakespeare's complex, unwieldy late play, and even then it was in a highly stylised version by Kneehigh. Maybe it's the unplaceability of the genre (is it a tragedy? a history? a romance?). Maybe it's the uncomfortable unevenness of the tone, which mashes gruesome gore with featherlight whimsy.
Whatever the reasons for the company's apparent reluctance, there's no escaping the fact that it's a vast, sprawling shambles of a play and it takes a brave director to prod the slumbering giant.
Melly Still, whose track record for the RSC so far has been mainly on the design side, takes up the directorial mantle with all the recklessness it requires. Some might say foolhardiness. Her design credentials are strongly in evidence, working alongside the assigned designer Anna Fleischle to create an unworldly, timeless milieu that matches the text perfectly for that unplaceability.
It's apparently a dystopian near-future, but it might as well be the far distant past or the Galactic Empire: what's important is that it is suitably dislocating and potentially menacing at every turn. The court of the ancient British monarch Cymbeline - here transformed into a queen rather than Shakespeare's original king - is one of quasi-druidic advisers and shabby gothic-punk costumes. By contrast, Rome is conjured by exotic Italian caricatures and a neon-daubed Madonna statue.
There are moments when the design and concept threaten to overwhelm the play, which is doubly dangerous when it's so little-known and the story needs to be lucid and clear. Fortunately, Still steers just the right side of overblown, and the result is frequently thrilling, moving and epic.
For all the purists' worrying, the cross-gendered casting ends up being largely unnoticeable. Gillian Bevan cuts a piratical dash as Cymbeline, recent RADA graduate Bethan Cullinane her feisty daughter Innogen. Many of the supporting cast (and there are many) make striking cameos out of their roles, notably Marcus Griffiths as Innogen's would-be suitor Cloten and Kelly Williams as her servant, here rebranded as Pisania.
The most effective performance, however, comes from Oliver Johnstone as the Italian dandy whose wager against Innogen's chastity sparks a destructive chain of events that powers much of the action. Johnstone does Machiavellian machinations and heart-rending remorse equally impressively and turns his character Iachimo from a devious plot device into a rich source of drama.
There are lots of things that don't work so well, among them the expensive and distractingly clever set, the multi-lingual dialogue exchanges, complete with projected surtitles, and some rather superfluous visual trickery that simply leaves you scratching your head. Why the newspaper cutout figures in a singalong, for instance, or the oddly revolving pillars dominating the upstage set?
But for all its faults and foibles, the production has real heart, and the commitment of cast and creatives is unquestionable. It may still be a sprawling shambles with an alarmingly overlong running time, but this is a Cymbeline that grabs the attention and rarely lets go.
Cymbeline runs at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon- Avon, until 15 October. Running time: 3 hours 25 minutes