It is unfortunate that the phrase “National Youth Theatre” conjures visions of worthy earnestness – why else would this excellent production of a difficult play have to perform to half-empty houses at the Arts Theatre. If instead the title “Royal Shakespeare Company” had hung above the door, the house would be full and to be honest barring the absence of some star names none would be much the wiser.
Because this production is an example in clarity. Some judicious cuts have sharpened the focus, and why more companies don’t take a scalpel to the sacred text in order to resolve down to two hours traffic on the stage is beyond me. The stage is simple, shrouded in sheets, through which as the music begins you can make out the palimpsest of the performers. Switch scene to Rome, and its towers appear in silhouette. A grid of light provides a window, a tuck of cloth reveals a cave. A shadow trunk opens and Iachimo emerges through the hanging sheets to gaze on the sleeping Imogen. Uncluttered and effective, and one can see that Designer Sam Wyer had worked with silhouettes in the excellent “All’s Well that Ends Well” at the National earlier this year.
The cast was on the whole excellent, enunciating well-paced verse with clarity. Luke McEwan is a brow-beaten Cymbelene, the responsibilities of ruling weighing heavily upon him. Catriona Cahill in a dramatic costume makes an eye-catching queen, and Rosie Sansom plays an unconventional Imogen with clarity and precision. However, undoubted scene-stealer was Will Edelsten as Cloten. There was a noticeable frission in the audience whenever he came onto the stage simply due to his presence and comic timing in what is usually an unsympathetic role. I’ll be watching out as his career develops.
This play does have some silly bits, and even they – on the whole – were carried off well. Cloten’s decapitation didn’t provoke its usual mirth, and the whole gaol scene, Jupiter and all, was mercifully underplayed. Nothing can make Guiderius and Arviragus lusting after Imogen-as-Fidele anything other than ridiculous. No-one really cares about the Romans but they do provide an excuse for a dramatic fight, and the whole denouement is preposterous, but no more so than most of Shakespeare’s other conclusions. Most of these minefields were navigated with aplomb in this classy, satisfying production.