The rear entrances to the stage of Shakespeare's Globe are covered over; before them stand arrays of gongs, gamelan and the like. The two percussionists and six actors in Mike Alfreds' production of Cymbeline, wearing white pyjamas, remain on stage the whole time.
Yes, six actors: the huge tapestry of this late play, including the daftest stage direction Shakespeare ever wrote – "Enter the Roman army at one door, and the Britain army at another; they march over and go out" – is conveyed by four men and two women, taking multiple roles, and where necessary announcing locations and characters. It is not especially difficult to follow, but it does mean that the typically overpopulated dénouement scene of a more than usually complex Shakespearean plot (involving a wicked stepmother, cross-dressing, exile, abduction, disguise, a wager about fidelity, decapitation, caves in Wales and, of course, war) becomes a triumph of imagination for performers and audience alike, as actors turn between roles on a sixpence and, for instance, Fergus O'Donnell has to continue a baroque explanation begun by, er, himself.
This strategy of Alfreds' in fact illuminates more than it obscures. How can the princess Imogen, awakening next to the headless corpse of her idiotic stepbrother Cloten, mistake it for that of her husband Posthumus? Not only is it dressed identically (because everyone is), but both men are played by Globe artistic director Mark Rylance: his Posthumus is a sober, considerate man, his ogrish Cloten more at home at the top of a beanstalk. And in general, it means that actors and audience alike concentrate on text and performance rather than any visual or thematic conceit, since matters are played out with a kind of Japanese simplicity.
As Imogen, Jane Arnfield makes a fine wide-eyed Shakespearean heroine, blessing even the bees that made the wax that seals the letter from her husband (hullo trees, hullo sky, sa fotherington-tomas). John Ramm, as the devious Iachimo and various gentlemen, uses many of the comic gestures though thankfully not the voice of his alter ego, Raymond Box of the National Theatre of Brent. Abigail Thaw's Queen is a smooth, smiling villainess, and Richard Hope runs the gamut from an attendant of Cloten's to King Cymbeline himself and beyond, even taking the role of mighty Jupiter. There is much laughter in these three and a quarter hours, but it is laughter of complicity, which affirms the enterprise rather than deriding the improbabilities of script and role-doubling. After a King Lear and a Macbeth which are at best only patchily successful, this Cymbeline becomes the jewel in the crown of the Globe's Celtic season.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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