A wealthy patriarch wants his daughter to marry his new wife's son. Unbeknownst to him, said daughter has already secretly married a man deemed inappropriate for her. Meanwhile, in another part of the world, a man is raising the patriarch’s long-lost sons, both abducted as infants.
Is it Dallas?
Is it Dynasty?
No, it is William Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.
Cymbeline is not a soap opera, but it might well be, judging from the convoluted and highly improbable plotlines. The story is so outrageously unbelievable that you need to suspend any sense of logic to engage with it. However, Cheek by Jowl has worked hard at pulling the strings together to create a coherent production and has come up trumps.
The company has chosen what seems to be a perfect way to stage the play: to tell it as a proper fairy-tale. In a way, we, as audience members, are following the actors’ attempt to tell the story rather than the story itself. It is always clear that this is an artifice. When Cloten, the son of the Queen, is introduced, he greets the audience with a ‘hi’. The audience is addressed directly on many occasions; it is looked at and reckoned with – this makes us feel that we are part of the show. One actor (Tom Hiddleston, who does a great job) plays the two characters Posthumus and Cloten and his transformation from one to the other happens regularly on stage, in full view of the audience. This is elegantly done, with a buttoning of a jacket here and a pair of spectacles there.
The stage is almost bare and only the most pertinent of props are being used. This type of performance does not need elaborate set designs. Instead, the actors use the whole stage, lingering in and out, as opposed to entering and exiting awkwardly. Nevertheless, everything is extraordinarily precise: the acting, the sound, the lighting. This precision is in danger of rendering the production somehow clinical but it turns out to be exactly how we want to be charmed into submission by a cast that makes sense of an otherwise illogical play.
Cymbeline at the Barbican until 23 June. Buy tickets here.
Image by Keith Pattison