Barbican Theatre, London EC2
Opened 29 May
, 2007

Nick Ormerod seldom designs sets as usually understood: backdrops, rostra, furniture of a kind that identifies an environment. Rather, he economically defines and characterises the stage space without pinning matters down. A set of drapes augmented occasionally by a chair or two, some animal skins or sylvan lighting, and the otherwise almost shockingly bare Barbican stage can be a palace, mountaintop, forest, cave or battlefield with the swiftness of imagination, leaving the space free for the actors to work untrammelled.

The other half of the Cheek By Jowl team, director Declan Donnellan, specialises in spatial relationships. He may have characters play a duologue separated by half the stage to show their emotional distance, or observed by other characters not literally present to suggest interrelationships and overshadowings. At the beginning of the second half, the disguised princess Imogen tramps repeatedly around the stage perimeter, looking at first like a latecomer back from the interval, while scenes are played out in the palace from which she is exiled. It occurs even in the casting: Gwendoline Christie as the manipulative Queen towers a full head above David Collings' Cymbeline, dominating him physically as well as psychologically.

This gives great interpretative clarity to texts, but can grow counter-productive as regards the narrative or emotional heft which engages an audience. "Show, don't tell" is a fundamental maxim, but it can backfire when we feel we're being not so much shown as demonstrated. It does not help that this late Shakespeare drama (palace jealousy, exile, disguise, ultimate reunion of father and daughter... you know the generic drill) is heavy on soliloquy: characters spend so much time explaining matters to us that Donnellan's deliberate physical patterning can become superfluous. There are some nice touches: Imogen's failed and successful suitor alike, a non-musclebound Cloten and an unhandsome, rather gawky Posthumus, are excellently doubled by Tom Hiddleston, and the forest-dwelling princes may have been tutored in nobility but can revert to atavism in a trice. And yes, this is at root a play about intimacy thwarted and deferred... but such graphic embodiment of it onstage can create a similar distance from the audience, which in the increasingly fantastical late plays is especially crippling.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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