For a rarely performed play, I’ve seen Cymbeline a number of times. Five times, in fact, and on four of those occasions this messy, thorny late romance, with its dense thicket of text and enormous knot of plot ends to be untangled come Act Five, has magically coalesced into something like grace. This, unfortunately, is the fifth occasion. For all the undoubted jazzed-up, try-hard efforts of Melly Still’s production, the fundamental trouble is that she doesn’t trust the play, doesn’t trust Shakespeare sufficiently to work calmly with the material and try to find quiet transcendence therein. Instead she throws all sorts of hectic ideas at it, and precious few of them stick.
All of which is a great pity, because Cymbeline can be wonderful. A curious blend of the fairytale – wicked stepmothers, magic potions, missing children – and the political – Roman forces invading ancient Britain in search of denied tribute – it finishes in a healing sunburst of no less than 36 crucial revelations, as Innogen (Bethan Cullinane) is reunited with her rightful husband Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera) after five acts that can best be described as eventful. Here, unfortunately, there is no sense of joy and redemption; I’ve rarely been less convinced by a pair of Shakespearean lovers. Without this central pole of the play standing strong, Cymbeline is in trouble from the start.
We might, temporarily, be distracted by the multiplicity of concepts on offer, which tumble breathlessly over each other despite the play’s lengthy running time. Anna Fleischle’s design puts us in a drab, post-Brexit near-future. In contrast to Britain’s glum, graffiti-covered walls, Italy, to which Posthumus escapes after his banishment by Cymbeline, is decadent, glamorous and colourful. It’s a place in which they also speak Italian (we read the surtitles) and French. Back on home soil, Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) negotiates with the Roman invaders in Latin.
Yes, that’s right, Cymbeline is now a woman, one of five gender-switched roles. It’s a device that the RSC has been exploring fruitfully of late – Cullinane makes a splendid Guildenstern in the current production of Hamlet, for example – but unfortunately none of the imported actresses stands out. There’s something lost, too, in the fact that meat-headed would-be prince Cloten (Marcus Griffiths, suggesting well the fruitless energy of this dolt’s malevolent schemes) now doesn’t have a devoted mother egging him on, but a rather distant father (James Clyde).
Cullinane undoubtedly works hard, but she doesn’t manage to turn Innogen into, as one commentator called her, the "soul of Britain," the great hope going forward to lead her country out of mess and despair. It’s something of a scattergun performance, which is perhaps apt in a play whose centrifugal tendencies are very hard to contain. Come the final act in Milford Haven, the audience is laughing heartily at the pell-mell series of revelations. In a better production than this we would be surprised, perhaps quietly amused, but above all we would be moved, as the life cycle refreshes itself and despair turns to hope once more.