Declan Donnellan’s severely stylized production of “Cymbeline” for Cheek by Jowl is more an advert for that ballsy Brit company’s testosterone-fueled performance style than a promotional effort on behalf of one of the more problematical of Shakespeare’s Late Romances. In stripping this dark comedy of its conventionally romantic trappings and pumping up the court intrigue, Donnellan and collaborator Nick Ormerod have effectively redefined it as an elemental power game played by vicious politicians — and reduced the invincible Imogen to a shadow of her former self.
Playing to the company’s strength, the Cheek by Jowl creatives — and lighting designer Judith Greenwood, in particular — make stunning use of the Harvey’s huge warehouse of a stage. With no sets to speak of and only a few sticks of furniture to loosely define scene settings, the near-bare playing space becomes a black canvas for finger-painting with lights. But as smart as it looks, there’s a downside to this vast space; without physical justification, players are frequently called upon to make a mad dash around the track just to keep up some semblance of stage action.
Unfettered by traditional Elizabethan-era constraints, Donnellan’s directorial imagination takes the play to some vaguely 1950s universe where Cymbeline (David Collings), that most taciturn of rigid Shakespearean kings, is surrounded by grim-faced male courtiers. With their black suits, neat ties and dead eyes, they might easily be taken for the cabinet of any head of state of the period.
Cymbeline’s perfidious Queen (given Amazonian presence by Gwendoline Christie) and virtuous daughter Imogen (Jodie McNee) are the only women allowed into this male preserve, and the stiff construction of their New Look gowns is all that’s needed to define their status in this male-dominated era.
By invoking the 1950s, Donnellan darkens the central plot device — the trickery of that Roman stallion Iachimo (Guy Flanagan) in convincing Posthumus (Tom Hiddleston) that his lady Imogen has been unfaithful — and gives these machinations more of a Cold War political thrust. But the ’50s is hardly the ideal era for witty romance, and the serio-comic efforts of Imogen to overcome the treachery and reclaim her love seem foolish, if not idiotic, in this context.
Ironically, the obtuse Posthumus actually thrives in this sinister environment, thanks to Hiddleston’s engaging perf and to the novelty of having the same thesp double as Cloten, the Queen’s evil son. In the paranoid atmosphere of the Cymbelinean/Nixonian/Bushie court, Hiddleston’s Posthumus takes on the virtue of a Peter Parker or Clark Kent — a misunderstood hero capable of greater deeds — while his Cloten takes on much darker dimensions.
Which leaves us with Imogen, generally considered to be the heart and soul of this play. Although some uncredited hairstylist has gone out of his/her way to make the poor actress look as drab as possible, McNee puts some fire into Imogen’s defense of her love. But the ’50s were a most unpoetical age, and true to the times, this Imogen comes across as a sour little puss.