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Lyric Hammersmith, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 31 January 2007

Kneehigh are a funny old prospect in today's world - the company was formed in Cornwall 27 years ago as one of those radical retorts to theatre companies like the then RSC and RNT who were generally perceived to be overblown and out-of-touch. Kneehigh made a virtue of localism, limited budgets and small casts, looking to European traditions of clowning and humour rather than elegant diction and high status for their style. Then came the Great Leap Forward - with Nicholas Hytner taking over the National and Michael Boyd moving the RSC further down a progressive path, with both displaying an interest in bringing the most exciting, radical, experimental directors and methods in from the fringe.

Hytner was especially instrumental in this, appointing the former artistic director of the BAC Tom Morris as an associate director, seemingly with the remit of acting as a kind of NT Cool Tsar. Morris brought with him a lot of the companies with whom he had fostered the most effective relationships at the BAC: Improbable, Complicite, Kneehigh et al. Thus, Kneehigh have, in recent years, found themselves with a greatly raised profile, in a theatrical environment which is frequently producing more and more of the sort of work which they and similar companies - such as early Complicite, Told By An Idiot and The Right Size (all revolving on the Hunter, P, Hunter, K, Magni, Carmichael, Wright axis) - pioneered.

So where does all this good luck - suddenly finding themselves right at the centre of things, instead of confined to the margins - leave Kneehigh? Well, it leaves them with commissions from the RSC to attempt Cymbeline for the company's sprawlingly diverse attempt on the Complete Works. Kneehigh don't conform to many people's idea of what British Shakespeare productions are like, though I'm willing to bet they come a damn sight closer to the spirit of the originals than today's lavish, big-budget productions ever do.

What Kneehigh offer is essentially an extreme modern re-write and makeover for one of Shakespeare's most difficult plays; a kind of Cymbeline For Dummies (or indeed Cymbeline Without Tears, except that would wrongly imply some Colly Cibber-ish neutering of the play's more tragic moments). Little of Shakespeare's original script remains, although most of the plot appears to survive intact. To this is added a good deal of supplemental fooling. When Posthumous' letter accusing Imogen of infidelity reaches her, she misreads the first line: 'Thy mistress, Pisanio, hath played the / strumpet in my bed?', responding: 'But, I can't even play the trumpet'. When they arrange to travel to Milford Haven, as per the original, Imogen's first response is: 'Where is Milford Haven?' These are nice touches, and the 'trumpet' gag, in particular, is genuinely heart-breaking when the truth of the accusations dawns on her.

There is also a striking amount of new music and songs - ranging in style from post-punk ska and dub to ersatz Portishead, along with some very beautiful old English/Cornish folk songs, played out in and around a two-storey metal cage, which serves as King Cymbeline's castle, bedroom, a band stand and an Italian strip club-cum-brothel. Indeed the aesthetic as a whole resembles nothing so much as Glastonbury '92.

Whether this is a success or not depends entirely on one's enjoyment of the clownish new material, and a tolerance for Kneehigh founder Mike Shepherd's seemingly inexhaustible desire to dress either as a pantomime dame or in vest and y-fronts for every single Kneehigh show (here, by virtue of doubling up, he achieves both). Even in spite of these elements, there is still much to commend this energetic take on Shakespeare; although, with a nearly three hour running time, it is tempting to think that not enough irreverence has been deployed.

Till 3 February 2007


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