As a decade of Dromgoole’s artistic directing comes to a close, so too does the Wanamaker stage Shakespeare’s ‘late plays’ that were written for a space such as this one. Starting with Pericles and ending at The Tempest, we now have reached the halfway point in this winter season with the fairly obscure Shakespeare ‘tragedy’ Cymbeline directed by Sam Yates.
Now, Cymbeline is a hard play to decipher: as tragedy, comedy and romance combine; various Shakespearean tropes merge into one farcical melting pot; and enough plot threads interweave to make a tapestry, it’s understandable why this late play is rarely heard of, let alone performed. Beginning with the banishment of Posthumus, husband to King Cymbeline’s daughter Imogen (or Innogen), the story unravels here into various locations and characters such from forest men in England to Italian Iagos. Nevertheless, Yates succeeds in finding a coherent strain in the play and as he blends all the ingredients that make Cymbeline together.
In many ways, Yate demonstrates how complimentary the intended theatre space of the Wanamaker is with this play. Despite its size, the Wanamaker provides moments of genuine intimacy for comedy, action or thriller. The asides in the play work like a charm in this space and the monologues invites a real connection between audience and actor. The choreography of fight scenes by Michela Meazza in this play should be celebrated, not so much for technical impressiveness but complete control within the chaos. Often the fight scenes emerge from deranged villains or in the midst of a war, yet Meazza is able to make these scenes feel dangerous yet coherent for the audience in the Wanamaker environment. The candlelit environment for the most part has the standard antiquated prettiness usually shown in plays here, but comes into full effect in certain scenes such as Iachimo’s perversion into Imogen’s bedroom that garnered gasps from the people below. While sometimes the stage feels unsuitable in holding (or relishing) the lunacy of the play, it does succeed in playing with the closeness and claustrophobia that comes from the set and story too.
Alex Baranowski’s score also serves as a fine musical overtone for the play, punctuating scenes and notable moments of villainy in brooding chords. The greatest triumph in the music comes from when you barley acknowledge it however, as I spent a good ten minutes after the play wondering how their instruments could compose waves and seagulls so well. The costume is less ornate than the usual Globe style though, as characters put on an array of costumes that reflect the same hodgepodge costume design in the original productions at Blackfriars. A great laugh comes from a decapitated corpse though, which has uncanny resemblance to the actor supposedly murdered.
And as for the actors, they are varied in parts (multiple) and skill. The two heroes, Imogen (Emily Barber) and Posthumus (Jonjo O’Neil) successful portray one f the hardest romances in the Shakespeare corpus. O’Neil is somehow able to make the quick jealousies and temper of his character far more believable than what the page presents, whereas Barber brings such clarity to her speech and one of those rare actors that has a character that is thinking on stage, reacting to her environment. Cymbeline himself (Joseph Marcell) also shares this quality in his brief scenes, showing a complex interiority to a weak king. Pauline McLynn also has tremendous fun as pantomime villainess the Queen, while Eugene O’Hare and Callum Calaghan have some great winks to the audience in their roles as Iachimo and Cloten. One of the standout performances however, comes from Christopher Logan who doubles as Cornelius the Physician and one of Cloten’s sycophants, among other minor characters. The roles are not large especially, but the multirole-ing is so on point, it’s hard to forget the actor once the play is done, he’s that memorable.
As the play winds down into colossus of a final scene – full of reveals, exposition and misperceptions – Yates pulls off such a daunting moment into a wonderful comic close to the play. It seems deliberate to push aside the potential gravity of Cymbeline, the sexual aggression and politics, which seems to be a wise move on Yates’ part. While it can’t excel any further than a splendid fairy tale because of this, the play is still successful in what it aims to do. It’s not the most emotional Cymbeline out there, but it still has a lot of heart.