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Cymbeline, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse | reviews, news & interviews

Cymbeline, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

Cymbeline, Sam Wanamaker Playhouse

This anonymous production fails to exploit this extraordinary theatre

Innogen (Emily Barber) tussles with Eugene O'Hare's scheming Iachimo© Bill Knight for theartsdesk

There’s a happy, cyclical logic to this first production of Cymbeline – Shakespeare’s late tragicomedy of love and jealousy – at the Globe’s Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. The first play Shakespeare wrote for the candle-lit, indoor Blackfriars Playhouse, Cymbeline was quite literally made for this space. How disappointing, then, that director Sam Yates proves so wilfully blind to the theatre’s unique spatial and dramatic possibilities, delivering a production that might charitably be called faithful, but which more often feels simply blank.

Lighting is a crucial part of the dramatic rhetoric of the Wanamaker – suffocatingly black in Dromgoole’s Malfi, bright and warm for the current Pericles, softly dim for Thomas Tallis – always alive and reactive to the action. Here however it feels inert, needlessly restrained in order to ensure the impact of a single climactic scene. Had Yates made more of the theatre itself then this might not matter, but his drama plays out stiffly and with uncharacteristic formality, as though confined in a proscenium rather than free to leap from aisles and roam about the musicians’ gallery or corridor.

Music too, so central a part of Wanamaker productions, struggles to find its footing in this anonymous show. Alex Baranowski’s score can’t decide whether to be folk-trad (songs) or inoffensively contemporary (incidental music), so settles for an unexciting combination of the two. “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” is a missed opportunity, and the modern instruments fail to justify their place in this period setting.

And then there’s the issue of accents – another incidental that becomes oddly prominent here owing to a lack of distractions. To have a Northern Irish Posthumus (Jonjo O’Neill) is not an issue, but to set him against Iachimo (Eugene O’Hare) who, even as he speaks of “my Italian brain” does so in an accent that’s the twin of O’Neill’s is confusing at best and nonsensical at worst. Clearly demarcated not only by nation but by character, the implicit kinship established here is deeply confusing, especially when Belarius (Brendan O’Hea) and his cave-dwelling sons ignore their Welsh context and speak only RP. That the programme contains an essay by Martin Butler exploring the importance of British identity to the play only adds to the oddity of these choices.

Cymbeline sees Shakespeare as an author still under construction. The tragicomic art he perfected in A Winter’s Tale and The Tempest is here as yet imperfect, still spilling out beyond the lines of mood, taste and character that define the genre. The play’s many-plotted structure keeps eye and brain guessing, lurching between moods and modes as it gathers bawdy humour, psychology, battle scenes and a love story into a single pot and stirs. Balancing and weighting these are the key to any theatrical reading, and while Yates’s choices are clear, they do risk losing the tragedy among all the laughs.

With O’Hare’s Iachimo played as a misguided charmer rather than a Machiavel, and even Callum Callaghan’s Cloten (pictured above with Christopher Logan) more buffoon than outright villain, we’re left casting around for some real villainy here, in Shakespeare’s most violent of tragicomedies. Rape is threatened, voyeuristic assault – Iachimo’s secret visit to Innogen’s chamber – achieved, a head cut off and many killed in battle, yet the stakes here just don’t seem high enough. Innogen’s discovery of the headless corpse is played for laughs, which it successfully gets, but at a high price. Only Pauline McLynn’s Queen (pictured left) dares to be wicked, cackling and scheming as the fairytale script demands.

In Emily Barber’s Innogen we do have a heroine both contemporary-comic and with enough weight to carry a near-tragedy, irresistibly warm in her dealings with Belarius and her unknown brothers, but also mining her time as Fidele for its comedy. Though supporting challenges come from Christopher Logan’s Cornelius and Trevor Fox’s long-suffering Pisanio, and O’Neill makes the most of his brief appearances as Posthumus, the evening is hers, as it should be.

The Wanamaker cycle of late Shakespeare Romances continues in the New Year with A Winter’s Tale, before Dromgoole himself returns to finish his time at the Globe off with The Tempest. Still time, then, for a production that allows us to live happily ever after.

  • Cymbeline at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 21 April 2016

Comments

I hope that readers will not be dissuaded from seeing this fantastically enjoyable production. I have made it a personal mission to see all four of the late romances and neither Pericles nor Cymbeline have been a disappointment. It was a thrill to hear Jonjo O'Neill's performance in a broad Belfast accent - "How, how? Another?" - and the hilarious Cloten made his death possibly more gruesome, having been almost likeable in his comedy. Great performances all round, if a bit of a rush through the finale. Go and see it before it's gone!

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