Cymbeline – June 2007


By: William Shakespeare

Directed by: Declan Donnellan

Company: Cheek by Jowl

Venue: Barbican Theatre

Date: Saturday 2nd June 2007

We seem to get lucky with Cymbeline productions – of the six we’ve seen, half have been excellent. This was one of them.

After Kneehigh’s version, it was nice to get back to a more “normal” edition of the play, although the staging certainly wasn’t traditional, unless you count it as traditional Cheek by Jowl, that is. The Barbican had been transformed, yet again, so that the chairs (temporary seating) were raked back in a slight curve from the stage area, which was a large, open expanse, with only two massive pillars, reminiscent of the Globe’s pillars, to either side of centre. Otherwise, all was black, bare and not immediately appealing. For this production, we also had two bars with piles of cloth in front of them – they rose up to be swagged curtains – a couple of chairs, and a table with glasses and a bottle. Once the curtains rose up, we could see a chaise longue by one pillar and a big trunk by the other.

I’d decided to check out the Barbican’s induction loop facilities today, and I was relieved to find they were using a little box with an antenna and headphones. When we go again, I can hopefully use my own headphones, as their ones were still uncomfortable after a while. Anyway, I managed to work it OK, left it switched off till the play began (I don’t need to hear crowd mutterings in detail), and then, as the lights went down I switched it on, only to find it wasn’t working! Oh dear. At the interval I discovered the antenna had come out, and screwed it back in, so the second half came across clearer than the first, but as we were sitting in Row B, this wasn’t really an issue.

So I missed the very opening of the play, as I was cursing (quietly) and fiddling with my knobs. When I started paying attention, the main cast were all posed behind the second curtain, as in a family photo, and two of the men were discussing the situation. What with stolen sons, exiled husbands and second marriages, this play reminds me that people often think that if Shakespeare was alive today he’d be writing for the soaps. Rubbish, that doesn’t pay nearly enough, he’d be a script-doctor in Hollywood! But I digress.

After the introductions, we’re straight into the action (there’s a lot to get through in this play), and Posthumus and Imogen are saying their farewells, supposedly assisted by the new Queen (hiss, boo). It’s clear Imogen doesn’t like her, but the main focus is her love for Posthumus, and the sorrow of their parting. The Queen does her double dealing pretty swiftly (start as you mean to go on), and soon brings the King along to discover the couple. He flies into a rage, and sends Posthumus packing.

The story from here seems pretty standard, although the book given to Posthumus by his parents still wasn’t included. The main interest is in the staging. When Cloten comes on, I didn’t realise at first that it was the same actor playing both Posthumus and this part. [Olivier Award for Best Newcomer 2008] He looked so different, moved so differently, and all through the play, it was absolutely clear which character he was playing. He got across Cloten’s braggadocio and cowardice very well, and also Posthumus’ integrity and studiousness (Posthumus wears glasses, always buttons his jacket, etc.). Cloten had a couple of yes men with him who were happy to flatter him, without showing any signs of actually respecting him.

The emptiness of the stage allowed for quick scene changes. As with the Russian Twelfth Night, the final line or exit from one scene was held as the next scene’s characters came on stage, paused, and then the scenes followed each other seamlessly – finish one, straight into the next. Also, when someone is giving an aside, the others freeze, helping to clarify what’s going on.

The Italian section was fine, and the setting up of the bet worked very well. Posthumus is reasonably intelligent, but he lets himself down badly here. Mind you, we know Imogen’s love is bomb-proof, so he’s not really so daft. Iachimo gets off on the wrong foot with Imogen, and this time she never really trusts him again. However, she’s too innocent to see any problem in keeping his trunk for him, so the trap is set.

The scene where Iachimo convinces Posthumus of Imogen’s unfaithfulness makes it clear that Posthumus isn’t too readily convinced. Unfortunately there’s a mole involved, and finally he succumbs. Off the Italians go to Britain, to sort out the non-payment of tribute.

Imogen’s receipt of Posthumus’ letter was fully as excited as the Kneehigh version. She showed a huge range of emotions in this performance, always with intelligence. The Welsh scenes are well edited (I don’t remember hearing the lads’ Welsh names at all), and the cave is basically a space in the middle of the stage, with some boxes and a record player beside the fire. I like that kind of staging – I’m perfectly capable of using my imagination to fill in the details, and I enjoy productions that encourage me to do that.

Of course, with Cloten and Posthumus being virtual twins, Imogen’s misidentification of Cloten’s body makes a lot of sense. The dream in which Posthumus’ parents speak to him is set as a family picnic, and the God is a disembodied voice. The final scene, with Cymbeline victorious, and the guards apparently ready to shoot all the prisoners out of hand, was considerably more tense than I’ve seen before. The prisoners all have sacks over their heads, so no chance of anyone being recognised. Not that they’re recognised immediately when the sacks come off, mind you, but at least the coverings make the delays more plausible.

None of the above really gets across the sheer energy of this production, nor the amount of detail in each performance. There was a lot of movement, with characters swirling round the stage, or occasionally holding still, or creeping about, like Iachimo. The physical aspects were very important, and added to the energy and tension. I know the story, but still I wanted to find out how it would work out this time. Roll on the next Cheek By Jowl!

© 2007 Sheila Evans at

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