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Cymbeline - Royal Shakespeare Company Review

Writer: Mark Johnson

Gregory Doran’s landmark 50th Royal Shakespeare Company production delights and engrossed as Cymbeline returns to The Royal Shakespeare Theatre.

Marking the 400th anniversary of the publishing of the First Folio, it’s undoubted that Cymbeline is a sweeping drama which Shakespeare throws together a collection of his best ideas from various of his previous work but this is far from just being his greatest hits. This production is up there with Doran’s best.

Cat White (Helen), Conor Glean (Cloten), Marcia Lecky (Dorothy), Peter De Jersey (Cymbeline) and Alexandra Gilbreath (The Queen)

With Doran at the helm, this notoriously difficult play is pulled out with clarity and skill that befits the legacy that goes with his length association with the company. The clarity of the delivery sees the piece sliced into three acts which makes the run time around 3 and a half hours, which flies by.

The first act focuses on Cymbeline (Peter De Jersey), King of Britain, and his daughter Imogen (Amber James). In secret Imogen marries Posthumus (Ed Sayer) yet Cymbeline has intended her to marry Cloten (Conor Glean) and subsequently banishes Posthumus to Rome. In Rome we meet Iachimo (a superb Jamie Wilkes) who provokes Posthumus about the constancy of his wife. Thus turning into a Much Ado About Nothing type deception which ends with Posthumus ordering Pisanio (Mark Hadfield), the King’s servant, to kill Imogen. At the same time back in Britain Cymbeline is on the brink of war with the Romans.

The second act moves the action to Milford Haven in Wales where banished Lord Belarus (Christian Patterson) is living raising the King’s sons who he stole away when they were infants. Imogen also heads to Wales believing that Posthumus has landed there. With Posthumus’s order looming, Pisanio suggest Imogen disguises herself a boy and to throw herself on the mercy of the Romans. Cloten dresses in Posthumus’s clothes and sets off in pursuit of Imogen, which ends up to be a decision that costs him his life (and his head). Imogen, falling ill takes medicine Pisanio gave her, which is from Cymbeline’s Queen who is dabbling in potions and is trying to kill the king. The Welsh sons lay the dead body next to Imogen’s as she also lays seemingly dead herself. She wakes up believing the body to be that of her husband.

The third act sees Pisanio sending Posthumus proof of Imogen’s believed death and sees Posthumus return to Britain to fight with alongside the Romans but he chooses to switch sides. During the battle Cymbeline is captured but ultimately the Romans are defeated. The conclusions sees reunions and peace, ending this epic tale on a high.

Amber James as Imogen. Photo by Ellie Kurttz

Doran’s clarity with the piece is matched by excellent design by Stephen Brimson Lewis, the largely bare staging is watched over by a moon that is used to great effect throughout. The lighting by Matt Daw adds Earthy textures whilst ramping up the tension when needed. A gorgeous score by Paul Englishby is performed by terrific 6 musicians.

In a superb company of actors, Amber James warm Imogen takes centre stage. She commands wonderful feeling and emotion throughout the performance and is matched beautifully by Ed Sayer as Posthumus. Peter De Jersey pitches his Cymbeline well, whilst Alexandra Gilbreath excels as The Queen, especially as she unravels. 

Doran delivers once more. If this is to be his last RSC production then it’s a stunning way to bow out. A precisely driven production that is highly engaging and endlessly watchable.

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐

Cymbeline continues in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until Saturday 27th May. Tickets are available from

Keith Osborn (Ghost Father), Marcia Lecky (Ghost Mother) and Ed Sayer (Posthumus). Photo by Ellie Kurttz.

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