Is there a more boring play than Shakespeare’s Cymbeline?

Is there a more boring play than Shakespeare’s Cymbeline?

Robert Tanitch reviews the RSC’s Cymbeline at the Barbican Theatre, London.

Shakespeare’s romance, set in Ancient Britain and telling a convoluted, implausible and highly artificial story, has never been popular with modern audiences and is rarely revived.

Cymbeline - Oliver Johnstone - Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

Oliver Johnstone in Cymbeline

Bernard Shaw dismissed it as “stagey trash of the lowest melodramatic order, abominably written, intellectually vulgar, foolish, offensive, indecent and exasperating beyond all tolerance.“ He recommended wholesale cutting and rewrote Act V.

Victorian audiences, however, loved the play and idolised the heroine.

Imogen, now called Innogen, has been acted by such famous actresses as Sarah Siddons, Helen Faucit, Ellen Terry, Peggy Ashcroft, Vanessa Redgrave, and Judi Dench. There is not much sense in reviving the play unless you have an exceptional actress to play her.

Iachimo (Oliver Johnstone), a second-rate Italian villain, bets Posthumus he can seduce Posthumus’ wife, Innogen; and in the play’s most erotic scene Iachimo gets himself delivered by trunk to her bedroom. He emerges, in this production, half-naked from the trunk while she is fast asleep to take an inventory of the room and of her body, including the mole on her left breast.

Shakespeare’s most sensational scene is when Innogen (Bethan Cullinane) wakes to find a headless man in bed with her and presumes it is her husband. There is then more Grand Guignol when she gets right on top of the dead body and starts kissing it.

Leading actors in the 19th century, surprisingly, wanted to play Posthumus, the credulous fool, who is far too ready to believe his wife’s infidelity, rather than Iachimo. Hiran Abeysekera is miscast and his diction is not good enough to give Posthumus’ blistering tirade against women its full due.

Cymbeline - Hiran Abeysekera, Bethan Cullinane - Photo by Ellie Kurttz (c) RSC

Hiran Abeysekera & Bethan Cullinane in Cymbeline

King Cymbeline is now Queen Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan) and she is hideously costumed and raped in battle. Imogen’s brother has had a sex change and is now his sister. It is she who beheads the wicked Cloten (Marcus Griffiths) who is much nicer than he usually is.

The audience is greatly amused by Cloten’s decapitated head and especially her father’s response: “What have you done? gets the biggest laugh of the evening.

A major innovation of the production is that all the foreigners speak in their native tongues and when they do Shakespeare’ text in English appears as sur-titles on the scenery.

I wouldn’t want to wish Melly Still’s dystopian production on any one. The production lasts a punishing three and a half hours, including interval.  Robert Tanitch Mature Times theatre reviewerMuch of it is incredibly boring and never more so than in the interminable last act when it seems as if all the loose ends, and there are an absurd amount of them, will never be tied up.  The text screams to be cut.

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