CYMBELINE Wanamaker at Shakespeare’s Globe SE1


This is part of Dominic Dromgoole’s candlelit farewell to his tenure at the Globe: a set of late Shakespeare romances , and follows his own fine PERICLES the other week. This one is directed by Sam Yates, and with its geographical wandering, improbable happenings, and odd lumps of possibly-non- Shakespeare text it is even knottier. But in the end, a fine and satisfying knot, finished with a  neat bow.

The plot is borrowed from a mixture of Holinshed’s chronicles of ancient Britain, mixed up with the sexier bit of the Decameron. Some scholars have thought that by now Shakespeare (int 1611) was actually in a mood to parody his own earlier work: there are strands of Othello-esque misunderstanding and Leontes unreason, Learish kingship, a defiant daughter, lost children recovered, a murderous wife, a cross-dressed innocent, a wrong corpse and confusion over an apothecary’s sleeping-draughts. In fact, it is hard to find an earlier Shakespeare play which does not somewhere foreshadow it.

So in brief: King Cymbeline and his second wife (who is trouble) want his daughter Imogen (here Innogen, more correctly) to marry her loutish stepbrother Cloten (great nominative determinism, the innocent and the clodpoll) . He is the Queen’s son. Our heroine however has secretly married Posthumus, who is lower born but decent. Until he isn’t decent at all , because when he is banished the Iago figure, Iachomo, tries to seduce Innogen and then pretend he has, and Posthumus falls for it, just about credibly. Meanwhile there are two missing princes, raised as rustic huntsmen., and a row with the Romans about tribute.

Of all the ‘romance’ plays this one requires the steadiest directorial nerve in turning on a sixpence from comedy to horror, tragic loss to ludicrous absurdity and back again. Yates holds it together beautifully. Not least because at its heart is Emily Barber as Innogen: graduated only last year and a real find. She is gloriously at home with the verse: can with equal naturalness rant it, prattle it, argue in it , weep or yawn to sleep it, all with proper enchantment. Moreover, she makes an adorable crop-haired boy when she is on the run; not least in the rough-and-tumble, deeply endearing reunion with the brigandish lads who turn out to be her long-lost brothers. Her affronted line that the life of a man is tedious, what with sleeping on the ground, brought the house down.
Jonjo O’Neill is her beloved Posthumus, Eugene O’Hare a sneaky Iachimo (who is, unusually, actually rather credible when he finally repents) But they’re all a delight, playing the emotions and the absurdities with equal relish: notably Trevor Fox’s Pisanio, always the right-hand-man, and Brendan O’Hea as the gruff old Belarius who stole the boys. Joseph Marcell is a fine King, matched with a fabulously nasty Pauline McLynn giving the bad Queen the full Cruella de Vil treatment. Calum Callaghan as the clottish Cloten plays it Tim Nice-but-Dim, but gives the often undervalued character a real air of offence. He may be an aspiring rapist and a Mummy’s boy, but you see his point. .Callaghan also gets the honour of having been made a fully detailed and wholly convincing (if bloodless) decapitated head, waved in the face of the startled Pit audience.
And so finally with battle, smoke, clashing shields, and misapprehensions so entangled that they require Jupiter himself to descend “on a thunderbolt” from the very high painted roof (the programme suggests that it was the exciting new mechanism at the Blackfriars theatre which made Shakespeare do that stage direction). Jupiter in this case is female, briskly spoken, wearing a bedsheet toga, pompadour wig and what looks like a gold bra. McLynn again…

And all the joking, beheading, brawls, heart-deep grief and entanglement ends in a very deft treatment of the long final explanation-and-forgiveness scene. Which could be boring, but here, as every character throws in their shillingsworth of dramatic revelation and Marcell the King gawps at each one, Yates’ cast permit us (amid the moving embraces) to shake with gales of laughter. That’s the way to do it.
box office 0207 401 9919 in rep to 21 April
rating Four   4 Meece Rating


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