Shakespeare's Cymbeline explodes with energy on the stage of the Swan Theatre, Stratford, in the latest offering by director Dominic Cooke. After a hugely successful production of The Malcontent last year, it seemed difficult to follow such an act, but Cooke has created a lost Britannic world on the eve of Roman colonization which teems with ancient ritual and national pride. We are transported to a fanciful evocation of our island heritage which likens this warrior race to the feather-clad Polynesians or New Zealand Maoris who accepted their newly-imposed overlords with dignified resignation. No kow-towing to their Roman interlopers here. These are a proud people who continue to worship their gods with fervour and who greet the Roman demands for tithes and taxes with disdain and incredulity.
The king of this island realm of native Britons is Cymbeline, an apparently ageing ruler whose weakness is nurtured by his scheming new wife, the Queen. King Cymbeline already has a feisty princess of a daughter, Imogen, but the Queen has a son of her own, obviously from a previous encounter, who laughably attempts to woo his step-sister. Imogen's disdain for this hapless upstart is only matched by her love and undying devotion to her husband and lover, the banished Posthumus Leonatus. Into this melting pot of sexual and political ambition is added a liberal sprinkling of libertine Italian lethario intent on seducing the pure Imogen. The resulting concoction is an evening of delight and laughter, tinged with horror and the threat of tragedy. This is truly a tragicomedy in which, with the help of the gods, all comes aright in the end in true comic fashion.
The two opposing cultures are brilliantly represented as, on the one hand, a nation of natives sporting mismatched costumes bastardized from the western trappings of 'civilization', with a strong hint of 'most welcome bondage' and S&M, and on the other, a successful and powerful master race adorned from head to toe in nothing but white -- white flip flops, white sandals, white suits and dresses, white tables and chairs -- the only colour a splash of red spaghetti sauce or those dark dark sunglasses to shield the eyes from the glare of their own egos. The malaise of these 'whiter-than-white' Italians is their arrogance and ennui, which leads to potentially tragic events amongst the innocent Britons, and the eventual defeat of the Roman military machine at the hands of grey wode-like mud-besmirched warriors willing to die for their island and its king.
Of course we are led through a tale of disguise and loss, of false identities and assumed names and genders, of mistakes and misconceptions, poisons and wicked stepmothers, each a narrative foretaste of the Disneyesque fantasy Snow White. Emma Fielding plays the princess Imogen, forced from her home and father by the machinations of her scheming stepmother, and the dastardly behaviour of a Roman cad intent on proving her sexual fallibility to her adoring but absent husband. Fielding's princess is an ideal of moral fidelity and womanhood, tinged with a decidedly regal strength and fortitude which ensures her flight, disguise and eventual capture in battle are believable and pitiable.
Fielding's performance was impeccable, a wronged and loving woman whose passion and determination overcomes all the perils she encounters, and whose breeding shines as brightly as in the spirits of her long lost brothers, Guiderius and Arviragus. Daniel Hawksford and Simon Trinder capture the exuberance and energy of youth of these hunting princes, nurtured in the wild mountains of Wales , with outstanding clarity. Both command the stage, their every gesture honest and insightful. They are complemented by Christopher Godwin's banished lord Belarius, whose flight from Cymbeline involved stealing the king's beloved sons and raising them as his own. Godwin's honourable return of his charges at the end of the play, and the heartfelt loss that such an act involved, is wonderfully and simply portrayed. The poignancy of this moment is hauntingly realistic, the sadness and loss turning to joy at the inclusion of this worthy warrior into Cymbeline's newly-extended family.
Several are missing from this joyous dénouement, no less the wicked Queen herself, whose dying act is to right certain wrongs. Ishia Bennison's seductress is a sultry siren whose sensuality is only matched by her duplicity and conniving personality. Bennison oozes sex, and her control over Cymbeline is both believable, and for any hot-blooded male, downright acceptable.
Tottering on high heels, tousled hair cascading over her curvaceous figure-hugging velvet dress, Bennison's Queen attempts to promote her useless son in Cymbeline's court. Cloten, played with comic relish by Paul Chahidi, struts his cowardly bravado, resplendent in bejewelled undergarment, threatening to duel with any weak enough to guarantee his success. Chahidi is doomed to failure when courting the intellectually and spiritually superior Imogen, but still he tries and tries. His eventual demise is as shocking as it is comical. In death, Cloten's presence sends shivers through the audience.
David Horovitch as Cymbeline echoes the failing strength and mental agility of Lear, only to rise Phoenix-like from his own ashes to defeat the warlike Romans, having survived the slow and debilitating poisoning at the hands of his power-crazed wife. Horovitch's king displays renewed manliness and kingly humility at the return of his sons and daughter, and extends a hand of peace to his banished son-in-law, Posthumus, played by Daniel Evans. Evans is an exuberant partner for Imogen, as quick to believe her falsehood as to seek his own death at the hands of whichever enemy he chooses to side against. A worthy partner for the strong and determined Imogen, Posthumus is perhaps a little headstrong to gain too much audience sympathy.
Aaron Neil is the faithful servant to Posthumus and Imogen, unknowingly pressed into service by the wicked Queen, and a perfect tool for supplying the disguise and poison aspects of the plot. Neil's doleful innocence and integrity shines through, his fortitude in the face of adversity ensuring that Imogen survives the intrigues of British and Roman courts alike.
As for the Machiavel of the piece, the self-styled Italian gentleman Iachimo, played with malicious delight by Anton Lesser, has an inevitable downfall which comes after the most despicable attempts to stain the reputation of Imogen and to win a twisted wager. A truly creepy creature of xenophobic caricature, Lesser provides a masterclass in expressive representation of evil masquerading in the guise of Italian refinement. Equally maligned is the arrogant Roman general, Caius Lucius, played with self-important humour by Rory Kinnear, whose eventual defeat is as shocking to himself as it is to the audience. The Romans are vanquished by the ramshackle British forces, an obvious political statement by Shakespeare in support of King James's proposals for a united Britain . This play twists the events of Roman occupation into a moment of British victory and generous invitation. As victor, Cymbeline even agrees to pay the Roman tributes demanded by an absent and defeated emperor.
The Britons are, of course, indirectly ruled by Jupiter, King of the Roman Gods, whose entrance is indescribably dramatic and worthy of this god of thunder. Truthful to Shakespeare's own desire to utilize the stage machinery of the Globe Playhouse, James Staddon is adorned with a costume and effect to die for. Long before the immortal 'beam me up Scottie', Jupiter glides above the action with magical dexterity.
Rae Smith's designs are thought-provoking and spellbinding. Gary Yershon's percussive music animalistic and primal. The whole, an evening's entertainment that grips from beginning to end. As we emerged into the post-pub Stratford evening, the magic was still with us. Cymbeline is a wonderful example of Shakespearean mastery, reinterpreted for a postmodern age with vigour and colour by the RSC and Dominic Cooke. I cannot recommend it enough.
Kevin Quarmby © 2003