Directed by Nathalie Adlam
Pros: An atmospheric production. Fine performances that bring Shakespeare’s language to life.
Cons: The complex plot is difficult to follow; the play’s disparate elements don’t cohere.
Our Verdict: A valiant attempt at a problematic play.
I had never seen or read Cymbeline
prior to attending this production by Les Foules Theatre
. Yet, because the play features a mishmash of so many Shakespearian tropes, it felt familiar. There’s a love triangle, a woman in drag, a court-versus-country dichotomy, a banished noble, long-lost children, the testing of a virtuous wife.
Cymbeline, King of Britain, may be the title role, but his daughter, Imogen, is the play’s heroine. Her father and wicked stepmother wish for her to marry Cloten, her stepbrother, but she instead marries her childhood sweetheart Posthumus. Cymbeline banishes Posthumus to Rome, where the dastardly Iachimo bets him that he (Iachimo) can seduce Imogen. Posthumus is certain of his wife’s chastity and agrees to the wager so Iachimo sets out to woo Imogen. His seduction fails, but through a bit of skulduggery he is able to convince Posthumus that Imogen has been unfaithful. Enraged, Posthumus orders that Imogen be killed, but she flees to the wilderness disguised as a boy. And then, well, things get even more complicated from there.
Cymbeline is not exactly a comedy or a tragedy, but more akin to a fairy tale. Indeed, the plot bears a strong resemblance to the story of Snow White. There is a wicked Queen/Stepmother, a would-be assassin who can’t go through with murdering a virtuous princess and instead sends her to hide in the wilderness, poison that induces a death-like coma.
Les Foules Theatre has chosen to set the play during the American Civil War. The setting is wonderfully atmospheric. Musicians, on stage throughout, play drums and banjos, and serve as troubadours to guide us through the folklore. Uniquely, this production featured a coating of earth down the centre of performance space, which the actors use throughout the play. Yet, like in most modernisations of Shakespeare, there are places where the mismatch between the text and visuals is jarring, for example when a Roman Captain appears demanding tributes to the emperor Caesar.
All the performers are up to the challenge of Shakespeare’s verse. In particular, Kathleen Stavert is wonderful as Imogen, the clever and virtuous heroine. She made the difficult language her own, yet the meaning always shone through. I also enjoyed Ed Sheridan’s performance as Iachimo, played as a posh smoothie. Larissa Archer creates the most unusual double-act I’ve ever seen: she plays both the Queen as a sultry New York diva, and Belarus as a grizzly old coot.
Unfortunately, the play is difficult to follow and does not feel like a coherent whole. I suspect these faults lie with the Bard and not with Les Foules Theatre. The plot has so many twists and turns that, if I had not read a summary beforehand, I certainly would have got lost. Also, I was never sure if I was watching a comedy or a tragedy. The Queen was played almost as a panto villain and the country folk are portrayed, with much silliness, as southern slack-jawed yokels. It was difficult to reconcile these performances with Imogen and Posthumus’s tragic situation at the heart of the play. I can see why Cymbeline is not often performed, but Les Foules Theatre have made a noble attempt.
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Cymbeline runs at the Space until 15th June 2013.
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