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William Shakespeare comes quite a long way down the list of credits for this Kneehigh Theatre production of Cymbeline. In the programme, the writer is listed as Carl Grose, with Shakespeare providing inspiration, and indeed only a few lines survive from the original text. Best to approach it then in that spirit – as a contemporary response to Cymbeline and an exuberantly theatrical exploration of the themes in this tricky play. As such it is typical of this inspired, audacious company, which has recently staged Tristan & Yseult and The Bacchae with similar mischievous chutzpah.
No ancient Britain then; the set is contemporary and expressionist, dominated by a huge metal cage festooned with bunches of flowers and photographs as if it were a roadside shrine. It is a striking visual metaphor for the grief that has imprisoned Cymbeline since losing his baby sons and first wife, and for the drug addiction that paralyses him as his second wife takes control.
It is also a handy place to stow the onstage band that laces the production with Stu Barker’s atmospheric music. And Emma Rice’s production brims over with this compound of practicality and invention, giving the show the feel of a pantomime. A chorus figure in drag (Mike Shepherd) fills us in on the plot. When Posthumus (Grose) sails to Italy, he simply suspends a boat- shaped skirt from his shoulders. Robert Luckay’s splendid, lecherous Iachimo spends much of the evening flirting with the women in the front row of the stalls.
As a piece of theatre it is fun, it finds a clear narrative route through this knotty drama and it plays with the friction between tragic content and comic style to sharpen your responses. But this time the style hijacks the play too much in places; the jokiness keeps the audience at arm’s length from the characters. Hayley Carmichael’s wonderful Imogen has a fierce integrity and a luminous innocence but around her sometimes less could be more.
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