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Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon

I guess I have been fortunate with Cymbeline because I have seen a couple of revelatory productions in my time, but above all was taught it by a brilliant teacher in High School, one Miss Elsie Corrigan, who got a class of rowdy teenagers not only to understand the depths and subtleties of Shakespeare’s underrated and often-maligned play, but even got us loving Thackeray’s Vanity Fair during the same period at the age of fifteen: no mean feat that. Let us hear it for all the Miss Corrigan’s of our educational world who, like the play Cymbeline itself, are often underrated and overlooked.

I therefore enjoyed this RSC production despite my occasional misgivings and quibbles with this particular interpretation. After all, I can still recite along with many of the speeches! Actually, I am basically deeply impressed and a little shaken up by the interpretation of director Melly Still. Essentially, this production of the play is echoing some of the arguments raging about whether or not to leave the EU. One of the subplots of the play involves Britain refusing to pay tribute any longer to Rome. When Cloten says:, “Britain’s a world by itself and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses,” he seems to be quoting Michael Gove. But Shakespeare has the play move towards peace and reconciliation, towards love and co-operation; and the troubles of the play are all to do with villains who are greedy for power or money. Iachimo, who Iago-like, trips off the jealousy plot, definitely lusts after Innogen once he sees her; and the Duke, James Clyde, is as ambitious as any demagogue or dictator to win the throne for his son and thus himself.

Melly Still has changed the sexes of several of the characters, most pointedly making Cymbline a woman and her consort, the Duke, a man. I was a bit uneasy with this, but it does not materially damage the play and it does make for some thought-provoking moments about female empowerment. As written, there is some wonderful late Shakespearean poetry, especially about Nature; but as designed, Britain is a blasted heath. Nevertheless, the story telling is clear and the characters are engaging and, at times, very moving. I just would have liked a bit more of the kind of magic one finds in the romances like the more problematic Pericles, Prince of Tyre, The Winter’s Tale or The Tempest. But then as Henry James used to say: you have to accept “the given”. And this production gives us a lot, some of it tantalisingly unexpected.

The performances are all very strong. Gillian Bevan makes something interesting of being Queen Cymbelina. I definitely want to see more of her. Bethan Cullinane is one of the most touching and strong Innogen’s imagineable and her parts of the story are played with direct warmth, real complexity and total integrity to the play. Hiran Abeysekera makes a great deal of the arrogant lack of self-knowledge, attractiveness and ultimate guilt of Posthumus; and Marcus Girffiths as Cloten is both suitably repellent and hilarious. Oliver Johnstone captures the diplomatic smoothness, clever duplicity and internal nastiness of Iachimo.

This Cymbeline gives us a very fine evening in the theatre and though I think there is more to Cymbeline as a play than we see here, this interpretation makes perfect sense, is consistent in itself, and is certainly worth seeing both for its viewpoint and for hearing the language of late Shakespeare so well delivered. Full marks to the cast, every single member of it.


Cymbeline is playing in repertoire the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until 15 October 2016. It then moves to the Barbican in London from 31 October to 22 December. It will be shown on big screens in cinemas from 28 September 2016.

  • Drama
  • By William Shakespeare
  • Director: Melly Still
  • Producer: Royal Shakespeare Company
  • Cast Includes: Gillian Bevan, Bethan Cullinane, Hiran Abeysekera, Kelly Williams, James Clyde, Marcus Griffiths, Oliver Johnstone, Graham Turner
  • Royal Shakespeare Company, Stratford-upon-Avon
  • Until 15 October 2016.
  • Review by Mel Cooper
  • 20 June 2016

About The Author

Reviewer (UK)

Canadian-born Mel Cooper first came to the UK to study English Literature at Oxford University and stayed. He was captivated by the culture and history of Britain, which he found to be a welcoming and tolerant country. After working in highly illustrated, non-fiction publishing for over a decade, he founded and edited the magazine Opera Now. Since then he has worked as a consultant to the Japanese broadcaster NHK, a broadcaster on British Satellite Broadcasting, a maker of audio shows and arts critic for several airlines, and as one of the team that started Britain’s first commercial classical music radio station, Classic FM, on which he was both a classical music DJ and creator and presenter of shows like Classic America and Authentic Performance. Throughout this period, he also lectured in music and literature in London and Oxford and published short stories in Canada. After working with the Genesis Foundation on helping to fund arts projects, he continues to write, review and lecture on music and literature. His first novel has just been published as an e-book. The title is City of Dreams. It is the first volume of a projected saga called The Dream Bearers. You can find the Kindle version of the book on Amazon.

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One Response

  1. Samiha Azim

    Cymbeline is believed to be one of Shakespeare’s final plays and it’s an overloaded entanglement of identity, seduction and deception. Directed by Melly Still, this RSC production takes one of the Bard’s lesser-performed plays and reassembles it to resonate with a 21st century audience.
    The titular character is the queen of a dystopian Britain who is characterised by grief and rage after the death of her two young children many years before. When her daughter Imogen secretly marries her sweetheart Posthumous, she exiles him in fury to Italy where he meets the smug Iachimo who wagers that he can seduce Imogen.
    At the centre of the play is the love story between Imogen and Posthumous and this relationship is brought to the stage in a tangible performance where the desperation and sexual longing of these young lovers is reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet. Bethan Cullinane’s Imogen is fiercely emotional and sensual; probably my favourite performance of the night, and her boldness in asserting her love for Posthumous and her resilience against Iachimo’s seduction, is spectacular.
    Still’s production pulls Cymbeline out of the mythical, medieval England of the text and into a barren, dystopian Britain of the near future. The set comprises of a tree stump in the middle, nodding to the wounded and ravaged Britain. Graffiti declaring ‘When I was young this was trees’ and ‘Remember how it was’, adds to the plays musings on returning to roots and a nostalgia for what once was. This production also gender-flips Cymbeline who is played by Gillian Bevan and the change introduces a layer of maternal grief that makes her character more than just a cynical ruler.
    Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s more rarely performed plays, probably due to the multiple plotlines, but Still is unfazed by this and adds further layers of complexity. Discussions of the production point out the allusions to the recent EU Referendum and Still herself says ‘In the play, Britain is undergoing a kind of identity crisis. It doesn’t know whether to be part of a bigger empire, or to assert its island status. That sounds like 2016 to me.’ Unfortunately the production becomes overcomplicated at parts with a multitude of ideas playing out on the one stage. The second half of the play is a bit sluggish with a lengthy battle scene between the Romans and British that seems like a subplot that has been given too much focus and with a running time of 3 hours, I feel like they could have taken more liberty with the text in the cutting room.
    The RSC’s production of Cymbeline is imaginative and willing to push the boundaries with a cast that gives enthusiastic and stellar performances. At times, an already complex play is made more chaotic and during other periods the pacing suffers and could do with dialling up the speed. But as the play closes to roaring applause and the cast takes a bow, I can’t help but think Shakespeare would have appreciated such experimentation with his work, even 400 years on.


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