Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Cymbeline, Barbican Centre

Review: Cymbeline, Barbican Centre

Published on Culture Wars, 06.06.2012

Most of Shakespeare’s plots fall effortlessly into place. His loose ends tie themselves together almost of their accord. Lovers waltz into one another’s arms. Just deserts are dished out.

In Cymbeline, however, you feel the playwright begin to sweat. He has to wrestle the plot into shape. Each time he pins one flailing narrative strand down, another gets away from him. He cycles through his trusty dramaturgical armoury, chucking in all the usual tricks in the hope that one will unlock the whole. Long-lost children? No. Cross-gender disguise? No. Sleeping potion? Love token? Headless corpse? No, no, no.

Yes, it’s a bit of a pastoral-comical-historical-tragical mish-mash, but Cymbeline’s real problem is that it meanders fairly arbitrarily towards a mawkish conclusion. Yukio Ninagawa can’t solve that, but he has found a thematic link that runs throughout. He reveals Cymbeline as a study of parent-child relationships.

He marks Rome, where Posthumous retreats in exile, with a vast statue of Romulus and Remus, suckling at the she-wolf that raised them. The two orphans are paralleled by Cymbeline’s own lost sons, Avriragus and Guiderius, raised wild in Milford Haven by the banished Belarius.

Cymbeline rules as a tyrant, it seems, because of that loss. Kohtaloh Yoshida enters draped in wolf skins and thrashing his sword left and right; he’s a dervish of a monarch. Even when he stops still, his courtiers stand braced in self-defence, waiting for the next outburst.

Before long, though, Cymbeline has lost his two other children: Imogen, because she has run off in the hope of joining Posthumous, and Cloten, a doltish wolf-cub in white, in pursuit. His identity as a father affects that of the king and his personal grief impacts upon the whole nation. As the Brits and Romans clash swords in battle, the sounds of a crying child and an air raid siren blend; each of these men is someone’s son, many are fathers themselves.

Ninagawa locates the Royal family’s reunion under a single pine, changing the text’s cedar to echo the single tree left standing after last year’s tsunami. It puts a real gloss on the final chink of optimism. In March, a year on, there were still more than 3,000 missing persons in Japan. As the clouds clear, the very absurd improbability of Cymbeline’s plot serves to increase the hopefulness of the final reunion.

However fathers and sons, mothers and daughters are myth’s building blocks and to foreground these archetypal relationships, Ninagawa is forced to simplify. In Tsukasa Nakagoshi’s design, the production drifts towards the fur coats and forged metal of Game of Thrones. That’s only furthered by the twist of superhumanity Ninagawa owes to Manga. Hiroshi Abe’s Posthumous looks nearly 7ft tall and, in battle, strides despite three arrows through his chest. For all that the might of Rome, armed like Medieval Crusaders, looks like a pointedly unstoppable invading force, the shift to fantasy overwhelms both the political and personal in the play. As such, the play only comes together in its latter stages and, though it hits an exquisite final note, Ninagawa’s production struggles in the build-up.

Photograph: Takahiro Watanabe

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