Directing matters

Amos Micah How 10 October 2007

The first critique of Trevor Nunn’s Cymbeline that I heard was “what a f*****g weird play.” It is easy to lose sight of the production when it is of such an obscure, bizarre text. Beheaded princes; gods, kings, battles; farcical contrivances that put even Wilde’s handbags to shame – to mention every facet of Cymbeline’s plot would consume any review. It is a play which calls for tremendous versatility and exceptional range: in no area does Nunn or his cast fail to deliver. The interval is spent agonising over the seemingly inevitable tragedy. By the end, as the stage fills with ever unlikelier twists, the stalls are quaking with laughter.

The intelligent directorial decisions are evident from the start, with a frankly tortuous opening dialogue converted into a quickfire exposition of plot through the introduction of a commendable comic chorus. The few cuts barely detracted from the overall quality of the performance, and they were more than adequately compensated for by the emphases on supporting roles. It resounds to the play’s credit that some of the funniest lines are spoken by characters simply called ‘Lord’ (Luke Roberts and Alastair Roberts).

‘Where the play fails’ is usually where I strike up now, but why bother? It’s not what I thought about. With a degree of exertion I could probe minutiae of specific performances, such as an under-inflected intonation, probably intentional but surely misguided, on Lizzie Crarer’s (‘Imogen’) part. Truthfully though, she and Max Bennett (‘Iachimo’) were their usual, spellbinding selves, retaining the core of their characters across changes of heart, genre and gender and making it look easy all the while. The minutiae that spring more easily to mind are certainly not flaws but rather their truly professional timing. For sheer crowd-pleasing extravagance Rory Mullarkey (‘Cloten’) should be warmly approved, having fully jettisoned the sinister nature of his would-be rapist and murderer. The most pleasing performance for me, however, was Patrick Warner’s ‘Cymbeline’. This eponymous yet passive character’s claim upon centre stage is perpetually challenged, as reflected by Warner’s performance both as vulnerable and vacillating puppet, and as formidable and heroic king.

I’ll be pilloried, I’m sure, for giving Cymbeline five stars. It is an imperfect play; confusing and inconsistent. Yet in its tragedy and absurdity and above all in its vast, boundless variety, Cymbeline is the Shakespeare play that works best as a metaphor for life. Such an excellent production of so difficult a play, and such an expansive metaphor, is truly life-affirming.

Amos Micah How