Cymbeline at the Barbican review: Epic, thrilling and bold to the core

Melissa York
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Shakespeare is the still the master of blending the personal and the political. And nowhere is this showcased more effectively than this production of Cymbeline by the RSC, set in “a dystopian Britain not too far in the future” (the programme’s words, not mine).

In a symbolic act of self-sabotage, our green and pleasant land has become overgrown with vines and over-hanging trees, while crumbling walls are daubed with regressive messages such as “family first” and “remember how it was”.

Italy, by contrast, is a futuristic metallic-besuited nation, raving with other European nations as part of a wider empire. A subtle analogy it is not, but Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s later, lesser-known plays, is nevertheless strong enough to speak to anyone who considers themselves political. It’s a complicated play – yet still one of the Bard’s most accessible – exploring national identity, character, gender and nature versus nurture. Lines like “Britain is a world by itself; and we will nothing pay for wearing our own noses” are a welcome reminder that questions of sovereignty run deep and have dominated our national conversation for centuries.

The text is set in ancient Britain at the time of Christ and follows a royal household led by King Cymbeline – gender swapped here for a combat-trousered Boudicca figure – that’s fighting to defend its lands from Roman invaders.

It’s epic, thrilling and bold to the core. At the end, the stage is spattered with blood, soil and even a shower of tiny paper puppets. But what’s left once the dust has settled is a welcome, reflective calm – and a production that should convince more companies to take a chance on Cymbeline.

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