A heady fairytale of love and loss and death set in ancient Britain, Cymbeline is a strange play. For one thing, it’s not Cymbeline’s play at all—the ancient British king barely gets a word in edgeways. Rather, it is his daughter, Innogen (Emily Barber) who steals the show. From the play’s dumbshow opening to the verbal acrobatics of its final scene, Barber’s every word and every movement is by turns funny, brave, and unbearably poignant. From her anguish as her secretly-wed husband, Posthumus (Jonjo O’Neill) is exiled, to her giddy, feverish glee at the prospect of meeting him at Milford Haven, her performance is spot-on.
Barber’s performance is a kind of bellwether for Sam Yates’ direction of the play. His sensitive and engaging interpretation readily embraces the strangeness, the heightened sensation, the sheer whackiness of late Shakespeare. The play cocks a snook at its own excesses, raising an eyebrow at rambling exposition of the seemingly impossible, and plays hard and fast with its shifts in mode, from comedy to tragedy and back again. Cloten (Calum Callaghan) is not just a clot, but a clown, whose feather-brained, sword-flourishing machismo serves to unwittingly advance the dynastic ambitions of the Queen (Pauline McLynn), who plays a blinder as Innogen’s gleefully evil stepmother.
But Yates’ play does tragedy as well as comedy. Imagine waking up from a drugged sleep in a desolate Welsh valley, only to find that you’ve been sleeping on what you think is the bloodied corpse of your husband. Imagine, wracked with grief and despair, smearing that corpse’s blood over your face. Well, when Innogen does this, it makes for the most grimly moving and utterly disturbing scene in the entire play. You don’t just watch her, mad with grief, but rather feel her pain.
Cymbeline is a strange play; sometimes hard to follow, and sometimes hard to watch. But that it doesn’t just hang together, but positively sings, is testament to Yates’ sensitivity as a director, his acute awareness of the text’s highs and its lows, its shortcomings as well as its triumphs, and the cast’s commitment to a difficult play.
Sam Wanamaker Playhouse until 21st April 2016