It's probably not a controversial statement to say that many of our high school English teachers did us a disservice when it comes to teaching Shakespeare. Seeing the new production of Cymbeline - one of The Bard's most often overlooked works - at Marrickville's Depot Theatre obliterates those memories of readings of Shakespeare marred by either passionlessness or grandiloquent earnestness as it brings the fire, wit, humour and sorrow of the play to life.
Set in ancient Britain, Cymbeline is named for the king Cunobeline, who is actually more of a supporting character at the centre of a story of romance, subterfuge, war, and (Shakespeare's favourite) crossdressing. The play is sometimes billed as a tragedy, but it does not really have a tragic figure at its centre like, for example, MacBeth, instead having a broad cast of fascinating character. The story begins simply with the king's daughter, who is deeply in love with the noble but poor Posthumus, who is banished by the king. Eventually, scheming by Imogen's stepmother the Queen and her son Cloten collides with a nefarious attempt to convince Posthumus of Imogen's impurity by the tricky Iachimo in a bloody and thrilling way.
This new production of the play has an interesting look, the set decorated with a rickety platform and wooden pallets that serve many different purposes - from a feast table to a bed - as needed. The characters are robed in tatters and cobbled together textures that add an almost post-apocalyptic vibe to the production that serves to enhance the atmosphere of the most eerie and the most violent scenes. Set and costume designer Angelika Nieweglowski should be highly commended for the distinctive and cohesive visual aspect to the production.
From the cast, director Sean O'Riordan has elicited some brilliant performances. Despite the relative youth of much of the cast, they wrap themselves around Shakespeare's knotty verse with gusto. Their delivery wrings enormous humour from each interaction between characters, in particular Tom Cloyne as the slimy Cloten and Romney Stanton as the irreverent yet unswervingly moral Pisanio. Jane Angharad as Imogen is absolutely stunning, delivering a performance full of nuance and pathos, and Celia Kelly as the icy Queen has a magnetic intensity unmatched by any other performer.
There were a few small stumbles during the production, and there are arguably shortcomings to the source material itself, but this production revived the centuries old work and made it feel fresh and alive. Even those who have completely given up on this type of theatre as being too dated and too inaccessible may find this to be an absorbing and often thrilling work. Productions like this reveal why Shakespeare's work is so enduring in the first place.
Cymbeline is running at Marrickville's Depot Theatre until Saturday October 15th. See the Sydney Scoop calendar for performance dates and times.