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Cymbeline - RSC Theatre Review

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by Alison Brinkworth (subscribe)
Freelance journalist in Birmingham with a passion for the dynamic theatre, art, food and fashion scene in Britain's 'Second City'.
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Female Led New Version Of Shakespeare Play
Cymbeline is one of William Shakespeare's lesser performed, lesser liked plays but a new production from the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) attempts to reassemble it with a female bias.

RSC, cymbeline, theatre review, Weekend Notes, Gillian Bevan, Bethan Cullinane, Melly Still, Barbican
A new production of Cymbeline by the RSC has a female bias.


Director Melly Still is stamping her mark on this production by playing around with the characters' genders and moving the period from an ancient Britain under threat from the Romans to a dystopian present.

Walls are daubed with graffiti and the British people have punk-influenced hairdos and costumes similar to those seen in the Queen musical We Will Rock You. Yet while the gender reassignment does fit well into the play, this is a frustrating new version that often drags and could do with an injection of pace to keep the audience's interest.

The key alteration in this production is that King Cymbeline and his wicked wife now becoming the strong, fiery warrior queen Cymbeline (a modern day Boudica) and her manipulative second husband, the Duke. Interestingly, the male roles changed into women by Still involve some of the strongest characters in the plot - Cymbeline, her long-lost "no fear" child Guideria and the faithful servant Pisania.

The play, which is on at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon until October and then moves to London's Barbican Theatre from October until the end of the year, opens with Cymbeline furious at her daughter, Innogen, for secretly marrying the unsuitable Posthumus.

rsc, cymbeline, gillian bevan, bethan cullinane
Gillian Bevan stands out in the lead role of Cymbeline, that has been changed from a male role to a female.


Keeping Innogen under lock and key and banishing Posthumus, Cymbeline - under the influence of the Duke - hopes to marry her off to the preferred choice of the Duke's son. Meanwhile, Posthumus has fled to Europe where he makes a bet with an Italian lothario, Iachimo, that Innogen will wait for him and cannot be wooed by the unlikeable playboy.

It's a love story of sorts, but more about distrust, war and forgiveness. There's a lot about this play that also creates discomfort. When Iachimo heads to England to win his bet, it's at its most uncomfortable. Realising that he can't win over Innogen, Iachimo resorts to unsavoury tactics of sneaking into her bedroom at night to gain evidence to convince Posthumus she has been unfaithful.

This scene is heavily drawn out and sees the Italian climbing over Innogen as she sleeps, looking under the covers at her naked body and being generally creepy amid overtones of sexual violence. Oliver Johnstone does well as Iachimo as he does make your skin crawl.

cymbeline, rsc, theatre review, bethan cullinane, gillian bevan
Cymbeline lifts in tempo after the interval.


Following the interval, the production picks up slightly with the introduction of Cymbeline's two missing children, who were stolen as children. They now live in the forest like wildlings and have befriended Innogen without any of them realising they are related.

Still has changed missing son Guideria into a long-lost sister for Innogen - a warrior woman who has no qualms about cutting off the enemy's head.

In a production that emphasises the strength of women, it ends up being the performances of females in the cast that have the greatest impact. Bethan Cullinane is an impressive Innogen, playing her with plenty of emotion and sensuality, while Natalie Simpson as Guideria is a breath of fresh air on stage in her RSC debut season. However, it's Gillian Bevan who is the scene-stealer as an attention-grabbing stately queen.

cymbeline, rsc, theatre review, bethan cullinane, gillian bevan
Cymbeline is a love story of sorts starring an impressive Bethan Cullinane, pictured with Hiran Abeysekera


This RSC production of Cymbeline is a lengthy play with a complex mix of characters that don't always sit well in modern times, but the main problem with this production is its pace.

Director Still chooses not to use many of the special effects available to her in the hi-tech Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford upon Avon and this, at times, flat production could have benefited from some kind of technical image wizardry to give it a boost.

It meant the production felt much longer than the three hours (not including the 20 minute interval) and what it really needed was to be carefully edited and injected with a faster more dramatic pace to keep the audience's interest alive.

Rating: 5/10

Cymbeline by the RSC
Running time: 3 hrs 20 mins interval

Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
Until October 15, 2016

Barbican Theatre, London
October 31 - December 22, 2016

Shown in cinemas nationwide from September 28, 2016

Tickets are available from 5 from the RSC website.
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Why? See A New Female Led Version Of Cymbeline
When: Until December 2016
Phone: 01789 403493
Where: Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, and The Barbican, London
Cost: From 5
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