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Cymbeline review at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘over-loaded’

Bethan Cullinane in Cymbeline at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

The last time the Royal Shakespeare Company tackled Cymbeline it was in conjunction with Kneehigh as part of the Complete Works season back in 2006. Melly Still’s production is far more faithful, in terms of the text at least. While it doesn’t rip things up in quite the same way as Emma Rice’s version, she’s made what, on the surface at least, feel like pretty bold choices, recasting Cymbeline, King of Britain, as a warrior queen – played with passion and clarity by Gillian Bevan – and setting the whole thing in a fuzzy dystopian future, but in other ways it’s quite a conventional production.

To be fair Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s plottiest plays. He really did throw everything in to it: stolen children, headless corpses, girls dressed as boys. Still’s production struggles with this abundance at times. There’s a hell of a lot going on.

There are polylingual sequences in Latin and French using surtitles; there are allusions to modern torture, with black sacks pulled over faces. There’s a bit where Bevan’s Cymbeline is almost raped. Wind machines are rolled on at one point. Anna Fleischle’s design, with its mixture of dangling tree roots and concrete towers daubed with graffiti, feels like a concept only half-realised and the cast are all saddled with these Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome costumes: shreds of denim, the ragged remnants of suits, hair in tendrils and punky quiffs.

None of this overshadows the fact that Imogen is one of the best female roles in the canon, far more interesting than Rosalind, and Bethan Cullinane goes at it with gusto. Oliver Johnstone makes an excellent Iachimo,Graham Turner is a solid Belarius. but elsewhere there’s a lot of pectoral acting going on, a lot of thrusting and enunciating. Though often entertaining and never dragging despite its length, it’s a bit of a muddle and it mainly serves to stoke your interest in the Globe’s forthcoming reworking of the play.

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Bold in intention but over-loaded production of one of Shakespeare's trickier plays