nytheatre.com review by Anthony C.E. Nelson
May 4, 2007
Lovers of classical theatre owe it to get themselves out to BAM as soon as possible and catch the masterful production of Cymbeline that Declan Donnelan and Cheek by Jowl are presenting.
Cymbeline is a romance, one of the group of four later plays (along with Pericles, The Tempest, and The Winter's Tale), in which Shakespeare explored shades of grey with his writing. They blend comedy and tragedy in ways that can be difficult to present, but as a group I find they often make for more rewarding viewing because of the ambiguities and the opportunities they offer for multi-faceted and nuanced acting.
At the center of Cymbeline is the love story of Posthumus (Tom Hiddleston) and Imogen (Jodie McNee). Imogen, the daughter of Cymbeline (a very funny David Collings) , has secretly married Posthumus instead of submitting to her father's will and marrying his oafish step-son Cloten (Hiddleston again, in a hilarious performance that seemed to be modeled a bit on George W. Bush). Posthumus, in punishment, is sent into Italy. Among those he encounters is the play's villain, the sly Iachimo (Guy Flanagan), who mocks Posthumus's love of his lady in England, insisting that all women are false and that if he were to visit London he could easily seduce her. Egged on by the court, Posthumus agrees to make a wager of it, and Iachimo departs for London.
Rebuffed quickly by the faithful Imogen, Iachimo conceives a plot. He hides himself in a large chest, which he requests Imogen keep in her bedroom for safe-keeping. After she is asleep, he sneaks out, records details of the room, and steals a bracelet off of Imogen's sleeping wrist.
Cloten, meanwhile, continues to pursue Imogen, egged on by his mother the Queen (the marvelous Gwendoline Christie, who does a fantastic job putting a nasty spin on what could be an easily missed character). She rejects him, and he swears revenge. Imogen frantically searches for her bracelet.
Iachimo returns to Italy, and triumphantly claims that he has won the bet, saving the bracelet for the killing blow. Posthumus is crushed, and then, in a rage, sends a letter ordering his servant Pisanio (Richard Cant, wonderful in a small role) to murder Imogen. Pisanio, deciding to save his master from himself, instead tricks Imogen into accompanying him into the wilderness, where he gives her boy's clothes and convinces her to disguise herself.
In desperation, she stumbles upon the hut of Belarius (Ryan Ellsworth), a nobleman unjustly banished by Cymbeline, who in revenge stole the king's two young sons (John Macmillan and Daniel Percival). The boys, Guiderius and Arviragus, have been raised unaware of their heritage and have no idea the "boy" they have just met is actually their sister. The approach to the two half-wild boys is one of the production's strongest aspects; both actors mix ape and panther body language into their movements, and their fierce fascination with Imogen when they first meet her (they treat her basically like a doll or a toy) is poignant and interesting.
From here, the stage is set for a series of remarkable coincidental encounters and realizations that follow what Donnelan has called in interviews "God through the synchronicity of events".
The company of actors is almost uniformly excellent; Flanagan, as Iachimo, is the play's one weak link. He has a vaguely European accent (it doesn't really sound Italian) even though none of the other Italian characters do, and seems like a much more modern individual than the rest of the people in this play, vaguely set somewhere between the '40s and the '60s. Donnelan and his partner (and Cheek by Jowl co-founder) designer Nick Ormerod have crafted a sleek and fast moving production, which takes advantage of lights to use the fascinating space of the Harvey Theatre itself as most of their set.
The characters in Cymbeline are not black and white, they have aspects that are heroic and some that are not. For example, Imogen, although resilient and clever, is cruel and dismissive to those below her. This marvelous company of actors does a fabulous job registering all the aspects of their characters, creating a truly believable set of human beings. Because of this, the absurd circumstances in which those characters find themselves register as both funny and poignant, and the long string of recognition with which the play concludes is a well-earned and satisfying finale.