Cymbeline is Cheek by Jowl’s second production of the year at the Barbican Theatre, following their superlative Russian production of Three Sisters last month. This is a adequate production of an inferior Shakespeare play, but the staging, on a vast open space built on top of the normal auditorium, means that much of the clarity Cheek by Jowl are know for is lost in the ether, many of the words inaudible even from the first few rows. The monumental size of the stage is also intermittently transferred to the physical distance between characters, intimacy lost by having actors standing metres apart in conversation. The play, one of Shakespeare’s later, it a mixed bag of plots; an evil Prince, a virtuous hero, repressed love, stolen children, devious foreigners, war, valour and crucially the nature of identity, are all in there somewhere. Shakespeare has dealt with many of these elements much better elsewhere in his work, and there is very little emotional insight to be had here (the famous scenes between Imogen and Pisanio perhaps excepted). The play is consequently little performed, although due to the RSC Complete works festival and pure fluke, I’ve seen two versions in the last two years.
As usual Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod take the direction and design credits respectively. Despite my criticisms of Donnellan’s direction (the distance between players and awkwardness of some of the movement), and criticism of Ormerod’s design (the sheer scale of the stage and some quibbles with the costumes, oscillating between Edwardian and modern), the production does give us a pared down, unfussy, telling of a rather long winded story. The play has a very male, quite laddish feel, the royal courts of Britain and Rome both showing men in less than heroic lights, misogynistic and often despicable sex fiends, at times the male courtiers moving almost as a malevolent group. The two main female roles in the play are a one dimensional devious Queen (Gwendoline Christie), and Imogen (Jodie McNee), daughter of the King, chaste maid and love of the banished Posthumus. The company has its weak links (especially, and collectively, at the Italian Court), but the main players are all decent enough. However the highlight of the evening is Tom Hiddlestone playing our hero Posthumus, as well as Cloten, the obnoxious and ambitious son of the Queen. These two roles were presumably intended for the same actor when the play was written, and it was a very good idea of Donnellan’s to do it with this production, underlining the identity theme of the piece. Hiddlestone plays Posthumus as an appealing geek and Cloten as an insufferable posh city boy, his physical transformation between the roles simply entailed putting on a raincoat and a pair of glasses, but due to the phenomenally good acting I could hardly recognise him as the same person. The end of the play is, even for our national poet, absurd in succinctly wrapping up a huge amount of plot, and of course ‘pardons for all’, stem from good King Cymbeline. Cheek by Jowl know how to assemble a striking stage picture, they know about movement, unfortunately the play and the space combine to let this admirable company down.