Cymbeline directed by Gregory Doran (2023).

Gregory Doran’s production of Cymbeline at the Royal Shakespeare Company (2023) is a triumph. It’s the 50th production which Doran (now Artistic Director Emeritus) has staged for the company, and quite a challenge (the running time alone is a hefty three hours). It also marks this year’s 400th anniversary of the First Folio: Cymbeline is the final play of that important first edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

But back to the challenges. Even the most ardent lover of Shakespeare must admit that Cymbeline is a strange and problematic play. The action, which largely takes place in Ancient Britain, is set against skirmishes with Rome over the payment of tribute money to Augustus Caesar. It’s confusingly over-plotted and (with the exception of Imogen, King Cymbeline’s daughter) peopled by flat characters.

Dr Johnson thought the play has “many just sentiments, some natural dialogue, and some pleasing scenes,” but complained of its “unresisting imbecility”. Harold Bloom saw it as a kind of self-parody in which Shakespeare revisited his favourite characters and plot devices in a tired, satirical vein.

I guess neither man would have enjoyed Melly Still’s 2016 production at the RSC, involving a gender-swapped title character in Ugg boots and a Brexit theme. I sat through it in complete and utter bafflement.

This time, I took the precaution of reading the play beforehand, but I don’t think I needed to because Doran’s production is not only clear, it’s also joyously theatrical. With a plot as bonkers as this (severed heads; Jupiter descending on the back of an eagle) why try to layer gimmickry on top of it?

A woman lies topless in bed, asleep, her hair spread out on the pillow.

Imogen From Shakespeare's 'Cymbeline'. Wilhelm Ferdinand Souchon, 1872. Wikimedia Commons.

Doran has clearly responded to Cymbeline’s artificiality, and many of his choices – having Posthumous’s parents appear in Greek tragedy masks for example – projected just the right combination of antiquity and strangeness.

I was curious to see how he pulled off the Jupiter scene and was not disappointed. Flying the actor down in a chariot was probably how they did it in the early 1600s, and Doran opts for something remarkably similar. Why mess with a winning formula? It’s a dramatic moment which has you gaping in disbelief (who expects a proper ‘deus ex machina’ in 2023?!)

In some ways, spectacle is the whole point of Cymbeline. Doran’s production shows us Shakespeare grappling with the new trend for tragicomedy, as well as embracing artificial forms like the masque. The unravelling of its manic plots – somewhat stupefying on the page – become, in Doran’s hands, an exhilarating rollercoaster of conflicting emotions.

The finale has the madcap energy of a writer seeing how far he can push the audience. The death of the Queen (all her villainies earnestly reported) provoked laughter, but the touching reunion of Imogen and her lost brothers is truly moving.

The unevenness of tone – so difficult for modern audiences – was, I suspect, not unusual in Shakespeare’s period. We have only to look at the Restoration trend for comic epilogues after tragedies to see that both forms co-existed. A famous example is Nell Gwyn’s epilogue to Dryden’s heroic tragedy Tyrannick Love (1669). Gwyn’s character, Valeria, dies at the end of the play, but as her ‘body’ is about to be removed by a pallbearer, she sits up and addresses him thus: “Hold, are you mad? you damn’d confounded Dog,/I am to rise, and speak the Epilogue”.

It was not until the late 18th century that audiences began to feel this kind of thing was jarring; judging from overheard conversations on the way out of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, modern audiences also wonder if we’re “allowed” to laugh during Cymbeline. In many ways we still inhabit a Victorian theatrical tradition, but the skilful handling of Cymbeline’s lurches in tone by Doran’s excellent cast kept me gripped, and explained the play’s attraction.

Something else this production illuminates are the links between Cymbeline and The Winter’s Tale (the latter memorably interpreted by Doran in 1999 with Antony Sher as Leontes). Both are plays of two halves: the court (with its repetitive imagery of jewels and gold) and the wilderness (with its references to birds and plants).

Shakespeare clearly took elements of Cymbeline (sexual jealousy; lost children; a miraculous resurrection) and refashioned them into his other late romance: a masterpiece of love, grief and second chances. I think it’s fair to say that without Cymbeline we would not have The Winter’s Tale; the two plays exist in dialogue with one another.

As for Doran, one can hardly forget his considerable contribution to Shakespeare in performance in Britain. He will certainly be missed at the helm of the RSC, but this challenging play of loss and reunion is a fitting farewell.