Cymbeline, RSC: maternal love and romance

Cymbeline. Photo Credit: Ellie Kurttz © RSC via Barbican
With exceptional settings, loud music, and an additional feminine touch, the Royal Shakespeare Company brings Cymbeline at the Barbican Theatre this winter. The romance is probably one of the least known work by Shakespeare, a late one, and thus even more an invite to rediscover it with this outstanding production.

The Queen of Britain, Cymbeline (Gillian Bevan), opposes her daughter’s husband, Posthumus (Hiran Abeysekera), who is thus banished from the Kingdom. The man finds refuge in Rome, at Philario’s villa, where one of the guests, Iachimo (Oliver Johnstone), bets he can seduce Posthumus’ chaste wife Innogen (Bethan Cullinane).

In the meantime, the only living heir to the throne is courted by her stepfather’ son, Cloten (Marcus Griffiths). The Duke (James Clyde), Cymbeline’s new husband, is indeed plotting to seize the power, ready to get the crown by any means.

Faithful to her only love in exile, Innogen doesn’t surrender either to Cloten or Iachimo. But Posthumus, in Rome, is deceived into believing in her wife’s infidelity, and he orders his servant to have her murdered.

On the higher political level, Rome’s ambassadors come to the British court to ask for the tribute due to the Empire. But the Duke strongly incite the Queen not be subjugated any longer and to fight against the Latin supremacy.

Rhythm, family, and journey are the three keywords I would use to describe the show.


Three hours running time are quite a challenge for the audience’s attention. But the interval almost took me by surprise when it arrived after already more than one hour passed. The monologues are short, and they aren’t a solo-actor piece, they are rather inserted into the dynamic of the scene already on the stage.


Cymbeline, originally a King, is a Queen. And her two kidnapped children are a son and a daughter, rather than two boys. This is not a feminine production, if you think the woman on the stage is simply there to represent the equality with man in power.

It is also about equality, but the choice of a Queen, instead of a King, adds a more sensible sense of maternal love towards Innogen. It also seems to give a reason of her blind trust in the Duke, given the extreme suffering and depression of a mother for the loss of her children.


It is difficult to say where the play is set: a dystopian world, a country in the revolution era, a time of rebellion. The Queen wears a military suit, there are graffiti in Banksy’ style, and the Roman statue is decorated with a neon halo. We travel from Britain to Italy, and from the court to the forest.
The projections in the background, together with moving scenography, help to recreate the right atmosphere for the right location.

The first scene in the Roman villa seems to recall the excessive party atmosphere of the movie La Grande Bellezza. And I cannot forget my pleased reaction when the actors started to speak Italian. And yes, then also in French and Latin.
As the story doesn’t stick to one place, we move across the continent and locations with the characters.

I found the production pushed a bit too far the borders when it came to the Underworld. The Jupiter scene appears too much a work of fiction, in the sequence of events so far flown seamlessly.

The candidates to the throne or to the lady’s heart lie. False reports have consequences of life and death. And lust for power or for love is a common sin for many. As a lot of classics, the topics are extremely contemporary.

Despite the rather complex storyline, there is such an energy on the stage that it is difficult not to be engaged.

There is wit – some debated Cymbeline should be indeed categorised as a tragicomedy rather than a romance – and the cast is simply wonderful.

Dates: 31 October - 17 December 2016


  1. so beautifully written! and the three words chosen to capture the essence of the plot are so apt... Keep up the good work!


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