Gonville and Caius Old Courts, 2.30pm, until Fri 22 Jun
Shakespeare cannot always be complemented for the skill or subtletly of his plots. Particularly when it comes to comedy, many a modern ‘Romcom’ triumphs over the bard in coherency or plausibility – and ‘Cymbeline’ is certainly no exception. Fortunately, this difficulty – that the play’s narrative is effectively impossible to follow – was recognised by this witty and amusingly honest production, which had some impressive acting and an even more remarkable sense of humour.
The romance plot of ‘Cymbeline’ includes a bit of everything. There’s a princess (Imogen – Charlotte Quinney), with two rival lovers (Posthumus and Cloten – Mateo Oxley), and a wicked stepmother (Juliet Cameron-Wilson) – not to mention plenty of cross-dressing, misunderstood identities, England at war, and some racism against Europeans. Actually detailing the action with a straight face is probably a task beyond anyone but Shakespeare; the entertaining programme takes around a thousand words to conclude that by the last scene things do “get pretty ridiculous”. The play was saved here by the performance’s willingness to acknowledge the ridiculousness.
Perhaps the most inspired aspect was that a play which officially calls for around twenty–thirty actors was here staged with just six. Most Shakespeare productions involve some doubling, but this really surpassed anything I’ve yet seen. Most actors were at least three characters, cleverly distinguished by a system of hats and ruffs. In the final scene this caused the official declaration of chaos, as effectively all the roles are needed onstage at the same time – necessitating some very deft footwork and ruff-changing. This did not help to make the action less confusing, but it did eventually help to make the whole thing a lot less serious and considerably funnier than the original script allows for.
The brilliant thing about this performance, then – from the programme onward – was its willingness to acknowledge that nobody can really follow it. ‘Cymbeline’ does not benefit from being taken seriously, and the whole staging had a very witty self-consciousness, which was hilarious and very enjoyable to watch. Down to the Roman representative’s bad Italian accent, it was clear that the actors were able to enjoy themselves and laugh at the action as it unfolded, a big relief for the audience who could do the same.