Cymbeline: The Musical is well-performed and hilarious, at the expense of dealing with its more serious themes.
Cymbeline has an alternative name, The Tragedie of Cymbeline – but nobody takes that title seriously anymore. Though listed as a tragedy in the First Folio, modern critics often classify Cymbeline as a romance or even a comedy. Joe Venable’s adaptation of “Shakespeare’s oddest play” (read: rapiest) takes that shift in genre perception to its extreme. A generously cut-down version of Shakespeare’s original, Cymbeline: The Musical is hilarious and self-aware – if sometimes failing to put its problematic aspects into a contemporary setting.
Whatever you think of Joe Venable’s script, the show was brilliantly executed. Outstanding performances came from Rory Russell (King Cymbeline), Joseph Folley (Jachimo) and Iona Rogan (Pisania). Even with so few lines, Russell remained the star of the show. His cartoon-villain voice matched the absurd artifice of the play and the audience did not grow tired of it. The Machiavellian Jachimo was played to perfection: he captured – with a help of some excellent costume changes, credit to Em Jones – everything vile about posh, leery men. The original play’s themes of British identity really came through his performance: insecurity masked by arrogance was his defining trait. Rogan’s performance, bar the slightly questionable Cockney accent, was hilarious throughout.
If you don’t know the plot of the play, think of it as a lesser Othello. The story centres around two separated lovers, Imogen (Georgina Deri) and Posthumus (Benjamin Gibson). Imogen has historically been played and received as an ideal (for the patriarchy), chaste woman. Venable’s script and Deri’s performance subverted this: this Imogen is fiery and defiant, full of life. At times, I will admit it’s a bit like watching Katy Perry’s music video ‘Roar’ (2013) – beautiful voice, but sometimes cringy. Gibson grew more confident as the play went on, delivering a stunning monologue in rage-red lighting towards the end of the play.
The minor characters brought comedy to the play. The evil Queen (Vicky Chiu), Cymbeline’s second wife, is a better, funnier Maleficent. Her song, ‘Herbs, Herbs, Herbs’ was indisputably the highlight of the show. I might start a petition to get it on Spotify. Judging by number of people humming it in the ADC bar after the show, I think it might make it. True, innocent comedy gold. Her son, Cloten (Theo Tompkins) is a comic, if slightly overdone at times, benevolent twist on the original not-so-funny rapist stepbrother. I was glad to see that part at least was taken out.
A lot more was taken out, too. Luckily for the audience and cast, the four-hour-long original was reduced to just over an hour. This meant throwing out swathes of uninteresting characters and confusing subplots – the production team will have been thankful for not having to stage a Roman invasion. However, the streamlined plot came at the loss of queerness. Imogen’s experience with gender fluidity and cross-dressing is left out of the adapted script. While this did save time, I wish could have seen Georgina Deri as a drag king!
Cymbeline, like most plays, has long been adapted and directed by men. So, I was glad to see a lot of women on the Production Team. With Amber De Ruyt and Frances Arnold as Producers and Olivia Railton and Riona Millar as Assistant Directors, the play just about escaped from the jaws of toxic masculinity and pop-feminism.
Joe Venable wrote in Varsity on Tuesday, “I’m hoping no-one will leave the theatre without feeling toxic masculinity has been roundly rejected.” I wasn’t so sure. Despite the excellent execution, at some points I wanted to leave – particularly, when witnessing the locker-room talk between Jachimo and Posthumous. It’s funny, but it’s also not. I wonder how far it’s productive to laugh at men acting so vilely. Laughter can make us question why we are laughing, and thus condemn what we see – as with Bong Joon-ho’s ‘Parasite’ (2019) – but laughter can also be enabling. Men say these things behind women’s backs and get laughter out of it from other men, which in turn tells them that their behaviour is acceptable. At times, the comedy on stage was no different to this. It demonstrated toxic masculinity at the expense of making systematic violence funny.
Venable said, “To try and show the locker room and the death threat without using the language of the locker room and the death threat seemed strange and untrue.” Theatre is a space for questioning and challenging an audience, but perhaps not for making them as uncomfortable as it made me. When many of us in the audience will have been subject to some of the things Jachimo plans to do, it’s no longer remote enough to make us laugh.