Director Ivana Palezevic keeps the staging simple, a decisions that allows a talented cast to make the most of what Shakespeare’s words give us. It’s a long play, and the swift entrances and exits help the pace roll along. The cast is small (eight actors) and their ability to make a two-hour play feel shorter speaks to their energetic performances. I was particularly impressed at the skill of the actors playing multiple roles. The characterisation is considered carefully. It was easy to forget James Bayliss’ romantic Posthumus and clown-like Cloten were played by the same actor, and this level of skill echoes across the cast.
Much of the shows heart comes from Palezevic herself, whose performance as Imogen provides the emotional glue for the show. Whilst the other characters provide playful spectacle - Hamish Boyle’s Iachimo is particularly slimy, I find myself only invested emotionally in Imogen. The issue here seems to lie in the text as opposed to the actors - it is difficult to feel any kind of sympathetic pangs for King Cymbeline that audiences may feel for, say, Hamlet’s Queen Gertrude, despite the life that actor Anthony Hogan brings to the character. That task lies largely on Imogen’s shoulders, and thankfully, Palezevic is certainly up to the task. Her ease with Shakespeare’s verse feels like second nature, and the sincerity she gives to Imogen’s plight is genuinely touching. Despite the less realised interior live of the other characters, there is enough colour and energy brought to their characterisation to keep things lively and engaging, and the actors do a good job of creating interesting characterisations - Laura Loach as the Queen is an example of a rather two-dimensional character being played with enough power to make your skin crawl.
Design elements help with the clarity of the storytelling. Sound is used effectively by designer Crystal Pulkowski to aid in establishing location, and heightening the tension in appropriate places. The battle scene in particular is made more fearsome by the ominous sound of hooves. The set (also by Pilkowski) is simple and straightforward, a delicate clock overhanging the stage reminding us that, for these characters, time is always running out. The lighting design takes a more playful turn, using bright colours that bring a sense of magic to the darker themes. This feels appropriate with Cymbeline toeing the line between romance, comedy, and tragedy.
Cymbeline is explosive, a wild and untamable challenge that an audience can either get on board with, or be baffled by. The play brings together everything you expect from Shakespeare into one text - music, dramatic battle scenes, high romance, revenge, trickery, and, of course, women becoming mysteriously unidentifiable once they shove all of their hair inside a cap. The Lonely Shakespeare Collective take on all of these elements fearlessly. At times the result may feel busy - but it is definitely never boring.
Cymbeline is on until the 29th of April at BATS theatre. Book your tickets at the BATS Theatre website