Cymbeline: embrace the madness

When you think of Shakespeare plays, what comes to mind? Romeo and Juliet? Twelfth Night? Macbeth? Whatever it is, I’m guessing most people’s first pick probably wouldn’t be the play I saw last night: Cymbeline. (In fact, if I were on Pointless, I’d probably consider it a pretty safe bet to win the jackpot.)

I’m not quite sure whether to call Cymbeline a tragedy or a comedy, or something in between. It’s got all the elements of a tragedy: star crossed lovers, angry parents, jealousy, deception and poison. But it also features mistaken identities, coincidences, girls dressing up as boys (and becoming instantly unrecognisable to everyone who knows them), and a laughable villain. Cymbeline at Waterloo East

Last night’s production at Waterloo East theatre, like their recent fantastic production of Othello, is a modern day version. The British king, Cymbeline, is angry because his daughter, Imogen, has decided to marry her girlfriend, Posthumus. So he banishes Posthumus to Italy, where she runs into Iacomo, who, for some reason, decides to bet her that he can seduce Imogen. Meanwhile, the Queen is trying to convince Imogen to marry her half-brother Cloden. After a few twists and turns, everyone ends up in Wales, which, for some reason, feels like the most un-Shakespearean place on Earth.

Sounds a bit bonkers? That’s because it is.

Shakespeare didn’t write Posthumus as a girl, in case you were wondering. In his original version, the character’s just a guy who gets in trouble for marrying above his station. The gay marriage twist is a bold move by director Emma Wilkinson – because it doesn’t actually add anything to the plot, which unfolds (almost) exactly as in the original text. That said, it’s quite refreshing, and I was just as convinced by the relationship between Imogen (Ami Jones) and Posthumus (Sam Brain) as I would have been had the latter been a man.

There were several moments of laugh out loud comedy too, most notably those featuring Mark Milligan as spoilt mummy’s boy Cloden. Constantly verging on hysteria, he minces around the stage, all dramatic gestures and wide eyes, before putting on a dress (as you do) and setting out for Wales. Even his mother, the coolly wicked Queen (Kassi Chalk), admits that he’s an ass, during a brief pause in her evil schemes.

I wish we could have seen more of Cloden and the Queen, who were both brilliantly unhinged in their own special ways. In fact, I wish we could have seen more of all the characters; at just 90 minutes, the play feels very short, and at times a bit rushed. This is particularly true towards the end, when everything happens very fast, before getting wrapped up far too neatly (my friend described it as being ‘a bit like Poirot’). One minute we’re in Wales, the next we’re at war and the king’s a prisoner. Then, just as quickly, he’s rescued. And then all the characters end up in the same room, and before you know it, everything’s resolved and forgiven, thanks to a conveniently timed deathbed confession. If you blink at any point in the last ten minutes, you’ve probably missed something important.  Cymbeline at Waterloo East

But having said that, I really enjoyed this version of Cymbeline by Albatross Productions. Any weaknesses are, in my view, down to the play itself, which suffers from not knowing quite what it wants to be, and is therefore, I imagine, a tricky one to adapt. Stuffed with just about every Shakespearean plot device going, it’s funny one minute, sad the next – not to mention extremely creepy, in the scene where Iacomo lets himself into Imogen’s bedroom at night, so he can get details to convince Posthumus she’s been unfaithful (for reasons I still don’t fully understand).

So, it turns out there’s a reason Cymbeline isn’t one of Shakespeare’s best known plays – but that doesn’t mean it’s not fun to watch. My advice? Embrace the madness and just go with it. But do it quickly, as it’s only on till tomorrow!

Photos: Albatross Productions

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