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A CurtainUp London London Review

Experience, O thou disprove Report
---- Imogen
Jodie McNee as Imogen
(Photo: Keith Pattison)
The Barbican, so long the domain of the Royal Shakespeare Company, now welcomes Shakespeare back with Cheek by Jowl's superb production of the difficult play Cymbeline. Much has changed since the RSC years. The auditorium has been refashioned and temporary levels of seating constructed on top of the old seats, so that you feel like you are sitting in a palimpsest of theatrical history. The stage, however, has been extended far back and reaches up to the gods. At times, the actors' voices even echo in the vast cavernous space. Within a theatre imbued with so much past, this gives the sense of a razed and completely new space.

If you compare this production with some of the last years of the RSC's tenure at the Barbican, it becomes obvious how much finesse and style Cheek by Jowl bring to Cymbeline. On paper, this play has a complicated and sometimes bizarre plot with a proper diaspora of elements, including an evil stepmother, a beheaded corpse, love betrayed, kidnapped sons, ghosts, an heirless kingdom, a cross-dressed heroine and the dead resurrected. However, in this beguiling production, the formidably intricate and potentially messy play possesses simplicity and coherent wholeness.

With an extremely lucid exposition, the elaborate narrative is made clear and none of the stranger plot elements jar. You do not doubt the credibility of Imogen stumbling across her long-lost brothers and, ignorant of each others' identities, forming close bonds of friendship. Nor, when she is believed dead and buried next to a decapitated body dressed as her beloved Posthumous, is the suspension of disbelief undermined. In the final scene, no less than four characters who are lost and believed dead return to life. A daughter, sons, and lovers are retrieved from tragedy but, in this mother of all recognition scenes, the message of ultimate hope is actually convincing. Life and love are recovered and that which was lost is regained.

Of course, the production's plausibility is in no small part due to the cast's ability and thus remains true to Cheek by Jowl's philosophy that "the actor is at the heart of theatre.". The accomplished cast is headed by Jodie McNee as Imogen. She plays a part in danger of cloying feistiness with integrity and heart. Posthumous and Cloten are both played by Tom Hiddleston, who subtly differentiates the parts of the slightly weak but true lover and the vain foolish villain. I also liked Gwendoline Christie as the domineering and manipulative Queen, whose tall stature means that she towers a good foot or two above her browbeaten husband. David Collings plays the king Cymbeline, the most backseat of eponymous heroes, with dignity and sincerity.

The actors are directed with a lightness of touch by Declan Donnellan. As well as high quality acting, there is an emphasis on clever use of movement. Scene changes are fluid, as groups of characters melt away and other characters share the stage across scenes. For instance, Cymbeline remains poised and motionless on stage as his two estranged teenage sons gambol around him. There are some directorial witty touches, such as Cloten's boy-band style serenading of Imogen, but the humour, like much else about this production, is always controlled.

The play, like the auditorium, is laid bare, and out of a convoluted plot, the audience witness a simple tale of spiritual regeneration. Cheek by Jowl make this play look so effortless and therein reveal their skill.
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Declan Donnellan

Starring: Jodie McNee, Tom Hiddleston, Gwendoline Christie, David Collings
With: Richard Cant, Guy Flanagan, Laurence Spellman, Jake Harders, Lola Peploe, Ryan Ellsworth, John Macmillan, Daniel Percival, David Caves, Mark Holgate
Design: Nick Ormerod
Associate Director and Movement: Judith Greenwood
Lighting: Judith Greenwood
Music: Catherine Jayes
Sound: Ross Chatfield
Running time: Three hours including an interval
Box Office: 020 7638 8891
Booking until 23rd June 2007
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 29th May 2007 performance at the Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London EC2Y 8DS (Tube: Barbican)
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