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Review: RSC's bonkers Cymberline, Barbican Theatre

B5774-cymbeline_review_hub.tmb-gal-1340When plays are rarely performed you do wonder if there is a good reason for it and Cymberline isn't one of William Shakespeare's best but the RSC has done a superb job with it, particularly given that they do the whole thing.

It's definitely a play of two halves. As we paused for the interval it was all going swimmingly. Queen Cymberline (Gillian Bevan), one of several gender swaps in this production, is angry that her only daughter Innogen (Bethan Cullinan) has married her lover Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera) and has banished him but not before the newly-weds swap gifts - a ring for Posthumus and bracelet for Innogen. Innogen's evil stepfather (James Clyde) wants Innogen to marry his oafish son Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) but he also has deadly plans for the Queen.

Things take a turn for the worse for Posthumus who, having made his way to Rome, encounters Iachimo (Oliver Johnstone), a playboy, who in hearing about the lovely and chaste Innogen wagers that he can prove she isn't by tempting her to bed. Posthumus bets the ring that Innogen has given him and you can see roughly where all that is going. Anyway that brings us up to the interval with a lot of people feeling rejected/hurt/bereft while others are rubbing their hands together in glee.

The second half is traditionally where all the problems created in the first get resolved and so it is with Cymberline except with added war, lost children, decapitation, cross-dressing and a good old dream sequence complete with paper puppets. (The dream sequence is particularly bizarre.) Throw-away mentions in the first half become major plot lines and there is an odd mixture of merriment and grimness.

It's almost best summed up in Posthumus' story arch. He moves through sweet and endearing to distraught to guilty to whiny to blood lust and then teeters on the edge of tragedy before stepping back for the happy ending.

There is a lot of odd and slightly incongruous stuff in the second half of Cymberline but the fact that it is a cracking production just about carries it through. It's ancient Britain setting has been fast forwarded to a concrete and graffiti strewn future where the stump of a tree is encased in a glass box. The Queen wears a patchwork dressing gown/coat, Innogen a denim/tutu combo and her servant has a punk hairstyle and when the action moves to Rome, Christian deities are framed in neon, in a style that is reminiscent of Baz Luhrman's film Romeo + Juliet.

The characters are colourful and the baddies particularly good fun. Marcus Griffiths is amusingly arrogant and dim while the sharp-suited Iachimo is smooth and sleek, turning on the charm to manipulate and get his way.

In other hands this is a play that would cut down nicely as there is a good plot at its heart. Given the RSC don't generally cut they've made it a lively, larger than life production milking the comedy and action and as a result its a fun watch. It's 3 hours and 40 minutes long including an interval and I'm giving it four stars. Catch it at the Barbican until Dec 17.