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A CurtainUp London London Review

It's complicated, isn't it? It's like a Shakespeare play — all misery and death.
---- Joan
Carl Grose as Posthumus
(Photo: Steve Tanner)
Kneehigh Theatre has made its name with unconventional and high-spirited productions. Now tackling a Shakespeare play for the first time, they bring their trademark irreverence and anarchy to Cymbeline, one of the bard's most difficult plays.

Emma Rice's adaptation revises the language and deconstructs the intricate plot, resulting in an extremely accessible production. In fact, the story is acculturated to such an extent that the king's tragic situation feels like a modern dysfunctional family. I doubt that a Cymbeline has ever been called "Smackhead"'by Imogen before Kneehigh got to grips with the play. The invented character of Joan (Mike Shepherd) acts as a chorus in a blond curly wig and outrageously pulled-up red socks and sandals. In her unconvincing female attire, she explicates the plot and banters with the audience, sharing holiday snapshots and flirting.

In addition to the indomitably chirpy Joan, other modern tokens and devices run throughout the production. As a testament to Kneehigh's innovative and imaginative stance, these gimmicks add up so that the world of Cymbeline assumes a distinct aesthetic and social character. For example, Cloton attempts to entrap Imogen with the date rape drug Rohypnol, and Imogen's identifying mark is a homemade tattoo instead of a mole. The crucial letters are delivered by a remote controlled car and battle is played out with toy soldiers on a board.

The central characters are well-acted. Imogen (Hayley Carmichael) is diminutive yet feisty, Cymbeline (Mike Shepherd) is sincere although drugged by an unscrupulous wife and Posthumus (Carl Grose) is affectingly played as a young, naive lover.

The design by Michael Vale is similarly unconventional and individualistic. A large metal cage dominates the stage, behind which Cymbeline's court is shut in, with all the claustrophobia of a modern royal family. A chorus of hoodies populate the stage, decorating the cage-palace with family ephemera in commemoration of the princes' kidnapping. Imogen's servant Pisanio (in a fine performance from Kirsty Woodward) hastily tidies up after the hoodies' vandalism and the production's general exuberance.

When the scene shifts to Italy, the cage is appropriately thrown open and the lecherous, shady Iachimo (an excellently amusing Robert Luckay) emerges surrounded by a line of prostitutes. These 'women' all wear heavy black wigs and kimono dressing-gowns but the disparity in their shapes and sizes is comic. The permanently onstage band add much to the play's atmosphere and show off a breathtaking range of music, from jazz to indie rock and thumping disco.

The playfulness and irreverence with which Kneehigh imbue this production sometimes slightly misses and comes across as adolescent bawdiness but, at other times, is refreshing. For example, Imogen's disguised male persona is called Ian and she misreads Posthumus' accusation to think that she "played the trumpet in bed" instead of strumpet.

We gain a lot in this adaptation of a decidedly unwieldy play: energy, humour and comprehensibility. However, we also lose the poignancy of the play's near tragedy. For instance, when Posthumous believes Imogen has died, we get dry ice and opera to express the catastrophe -—scarcely tear-jerking.

Kneehigh's experimentalism may not be to everyone's taste and, by making the play so accessible, this response to Shakespeare is ultimately reductive and not much else. Nevertheless, this certainly avoids a stereotypically stuffy Shakespeare performance and is instead dynamic, fun and imaginative.

Inspired by William Shakespeare
Directed and adapted by Emma Rice
Writer: Carl Grose

With: Hayley Carmichael, Carl Grose, Craig Johnson, Dominic Lawton, Robert Luckay, Amanda Lawrence, Mike Shepherd, Kirsty Woodward, Marcello Magni
Design: Michael Vale
Lighting: Malcolm Rippeth
Sound: Gregory Clarke
Music: Stu Baker
Running time: Two hours 45 minutes with one interval
Produced in association with the Royal Shakespeare Company
Box Office: 0870 050 0511
Booking to 3rd February 2007
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge based on 18th January 2007 performance at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, King Street, London W6 (Tube: Hammersmith)
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©Copyright 2007, Elyse Sommer.
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