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Recent RSC price rises have meant that we're more inclined to watch the live broadcasts at the Picturehouse than to go to Stratford, but I got an email last week offering £15 tickets for Cymbeline and, as I'd got the week off work anyway, we decided to return our cinema tickets and go to this afternoon's matinee instead.

I didn't know the play at all beforehand. The plot felt like something of a mash-up of elements from other plays; the jealousy plot from Othello, the faked death being mistaken for real from Romeo and Juliet, cross-dressing, long-lost siblings. I'd always thought it was a tragedy, but although the production featured a fair amount of gore there were surprisingly few deaths, and the ending was much closer to that of a comedy, with lovers reunited, lost children restored to their true heritage, general celebration and rejoicing. It did feel rather as though Shakespeare was phoning this one in; definitely more of a curiosity than a sadly neglected classic, I'd say.

The production was very much played for laughs, particularly bawdy ones, as well as for gore and brutality (within the confines of a stage production, some of the violence was still quite shocking). Visually, the look was definitely aiming for near-future dystopia, with the British in patchworks of tweed and denim (and Cymbeline herself in Ugg boots and a long patchwork cardigan a lot of the time) and the Romans in military uniforms and sunglasses, while the set featured graffiti and a decaying-industrial-landscape vibe for Britain (for me, it very much caught the aesthetic that Gwyneth Jones's Bold As Love series suggests) and a sleek nightclub atmosphere for Rome. The non-British characters also spoke at least some of their lines in non-English languages, reinforcing their differentness; the Romans, obviously, spoke Latin, Iachimo spoke Italian and the French character French, with the English originals projected onto the backdrop.

Apart from the translation, the text was also changed to allow for the fact that several of the parts were gender-swapped; in this version, Cymbeline is a queen rather than a king, and her scheming spouse is a Duke rather than a fairytale-style wicked stepmother, while the elder (and bloodthirstier) of the two long-lost children is a daughter rather than a son. I felt this did interesting things to the dynamics of the play; apart from the fact that if Cymbeline had been a king it would have seemed a lot more reminiscent of King Lear, it replaces the standard trope of the woman scheming for the advantage of her own child over her stepchildren with a man trying to bring down a powerful woman. Meanwhile, the men mainly seem to be Terribly Poor Stuff, especially Posthumus who not only lets Iachimo talk him in to a stupid bet but believes the lies he is told in return; Iachimo, this one at least, is no Iago and his manipulation doesn't come across as particularly subtle, while the reelvant lines from Ovid are projected on the backdrop when he mentions the story of Philomel, in case anyone in the audience wasn't aware of what was being referenced. It felt like quite a feminist reading of a play which could easily have been anything but.


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September 2017

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