Cymbeline @ Barbican Theatre, London

cast list
Gwendoline Christie
Tom Hiddleston
Jodie McNee
David Collings
Richard Cant
Guy Flanagan
Laurence Spellman
Jake Harders
Lola Peploe
Ryan Ellsworth
John MacMillan
Daniel Percival
Mark Holgate
David Caves

directed by
Declan Donnellan
Cymbeline, one of the plays in Shakespeare’s late quartet, is highly problematic. There’s so much that’s good about it but it all falls apart in the final act, as revelation follows revelation, all of them known to the audience already. This awkward dramatic structure makes the play very difficult to perform effectively and may account for its relatively rare exposure.

Cheek by Jowl’s production has something of the feel of a time-capsule. They were an innovative and exciting company some 20 years ago but there’s a definite sense that they have been repeating themselves ever since. This production is one of tableaux, dumbshows and frozen poses and all the posturing sheds little light on the obscurities of this difficult text.

The biggest pose of all is to pretend that the Barbican Theatre is not the Barbican Theatre at all. Both auditorium and stage have been built over, creating a very different space, and you can’t help wondering why they didn’t save themselves the trouble and perform it in another venue altogether.

The stage is vast, open to the back and sides, and actors have to run marathons to reach each other, often playing intimate scenes 20 yards apart. Poor Richard Cant, as an obsequious Pisanio, spends a large amount of time running backwards over huge distances. Occasionally this spaciousness has quite a dramatic effect but most of the time feels empty, giving the appearance of a touring production floundering in a venue that’s just too big for it. The acoustics are not good and, with much of the text played low-key, the actors are hard to hear and inaudible when they turn upstage.

These problems apart, the casting is strong. Jodie MacNee is a sympathetic Imogen and there’s an interesting doubling of Posthumus (raincoat on) and Cloten (raincoat off) from Tom Hiddleston. Although low-born, Posthumus owns two macs, which facilitates the plot contrivance of Imogen mistaking Cloten’s headless corpse for her husband. In the absence of a head, she’s so certain that the leg and hand of her strange bedfellow are his that the doubling takes on a further potency. Hiddleston distinguishes well between the two men and, despite a tendency to chop the text into tiny bits, gives a colourful performance.

Guy Flanagan as Iachimo, the scheming villain who sunders the young couple before petering out, assumes an Italianate lilt (the only Roman who does so), which adds to the already difficult intelligibility of the production.

The themes of rebirth and resurrection run through the late plays and nowhere more than here, where husband and wife each have to believe the other dead before they can overcome the divisions that exile and treachery have created between them. Unfortunately, by the time of reconciliation, the production has descended into self-indulgence, and what should be a touching reunion gets lost.

Director Declan Donnellan tries hard to overcome the problems of the final act but doesn’t succeed, despite a lively victory conga, streamers and balloons. Another difficulty the deus ex machina of Jupiter’s descent on a golden eagle is glossed over unsatisfactorily and all but unintelligibly for anyone without a thorough knowledge of the text.

Take a good look at the synopsis first and you may survive the weaknesses of Cheek by Jowl’s idiosyncratic treatment of this highly flawed masterpiece.

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