In some ways, the National Youth Theatre’s decision to stage Cymbeline could seem an unusual choice. This play is so rarely performed and isn’t well known among students or theatregoers. But it is also an interesting choice. Why shouldn’t enthusiastic and talented young actors and stage technicians encounter this lesser-known play and face the many issues of producing it? For them and for the audience, Cymbeline is a mighty challenge.
Indeed, much of this production shows a great understanding and ingestion of one of Shakespeare’s later contributions to theatre. The National Youth Theatre has been fostering and encouraging young talent in the UK since their founding by Michael Croft in 1956. They boast the proud title of the world’s first youth theatre whose mantra is to encourage “creative, social and personal development of young people through the creative arts.” This production is just one of the impressive number of productions they are producing with Britain’s young people this year.
Sam Wyer’s set design is minimal but very flexible and intelligently manipulated to change from court to countryside with little effort but for a few subtle projections. A white canvas covers the sides and back of the stage from corner to corner, and onto this, projected images of suggestive scenery, the ticking of a clock, and the clever use of shadowed images lit from behind the back screen of cloth creates an incredibly effective rise in dramatic tension.
Adrian Barnes’ lighting design (realised by Mark Beasley) is incredibly effective throughout. From the onset, with well-articulated spotlighting helping to make very clear the initial explanation of the story, the lighting is one of the strongest aspects of the performance. It is never showy; rather, it subtly and effectively enhances the play. Even when lighting is minimal, such as when the wonderfully detestable Cloten, played by Will Edelston, creeps around in search of Posthumus, the use of torchlight shining up onto Edelston’s face is marvelously and elementarily effective.
Costume design is unfortunately bewildering. It’s an obscure mixture of eras and styles, with an approach that seems somewhat incongruent and disjointed. While in Cymbeline and Cloten we have more-or-less traditional Elizabethan dress, Cymbeline’s queen, played by Catriona Cahill (Cloten’s mother), appears in an outfit probably better suited for the latest production of Moulin Rouge—lace tights, black underwear on show and an extravagant bouffant drape of a skirt behind her. Similarly, Imogen (Rosie Sansom) arrives on stage in what I would consider an outfit of the 1990s—a grey faded knee-length skirt with a fitted black jacket and heels. I think that with the minimalist approach to scenery there is no need to commit to a certain period for costume; rather, a more generic approach would be better than the seeming mixture in this production.
There are most certainly some promising young actors in this cast. Particular praise must go to Rosie Sansom as Imogen who takes on a large and difficult role and gives a brave performance. Poor Rosie has surely the hardest line in the play to deliver with some semblance of seriousness rather than the comedy that could so easily follow. In front of her lies the beheaded Cloten, who she believes to be her beloved Posthumus. She laments over his headless corpse, bemoaning “Oh, Posthumus, where is thy head?” The line escaped with only a few giggles from younger audience members—doubtless friends of the cast.
I particularly enjoyed the stage mastery of Will Edelston’s Cloten. His portrayal of the greatly-disliked prince, unsuccessful in wooing Imogen and out so seek revenge on Posthumus, gives exactly the right balance of pantomime wickedness so as to delight and disgust the audience in equal amounts without becoming a parody of himself. He is a young man very aware of his audience, welcoming the attention and learning quickly how to play up to them.
There is a wonderful wooing scene organised by Cloten to woo Imogen, but performed by hired musicians Edie Crowe, Will Edelston and Ned Derrington. It’s a humorous highlight and an endearing moment within the production, showing off the actors’ numerous talents. The composer, Tristan Parkes, has worked with NYT for almost ten years, and says he now sees his role as the “overenthusiastic facilitator involved in the co-devising and sound for productions.” This is particularly noticeable in the song of lamentation after the seeming death of Imogen. The two brothers sing songs that have a decidedly modern feel, and would be more than at home coming from an indie band in a small north London pub on a Saturday night. In fact, it doesn’t feel too incongruous or out of place, but gives the production a thoroughly contemporary, youthful feel.
There’s much to recommend here. Although there are several aspects of the performance that reveal this is a youthful cast, some of these aspects are not the detrimental points you would expect, but are, in fact, aspects that enhance the production, giving it a unique edge. The performance is undoubtedly professional enough to deserve this fantastic spot in central London, and is not only a wonderful experience for these young actors, but is also a good and worthwhile interpretation of a rarely seen page in Shakespeare’s canon.
Cymbeline runs October 6 - 24 at The Arts Theatre, Great Newport Street, London, WC2H 7JB. Information can be found at http://www.nyt.org.uk/.