Playing the nasty Iachimo in the Royal Shakespeare Company's "Cymbeline," Paul Freeman is suavely slimy. As Claudius in "Hamlet" he gave a strong but held-in performance; here he relaxes and has fun. As much scamp as villain, he smiles and smiles and smiles and is a villain.
Adrian Noble's production, which opened last night in the Eisenhower, treats Shakespeare's late romance as a sumptuous, vaguely Oriental fairy tale, an approach that works extremely well with the sprawling and unsatisfactory script. The consensus on the 1609 "Cymbeline" is that Shakespeare was trying to figure out how to write a tragicomic romance, a form he finally perfected in "The Tempest." Certainly, the dramatic hand here feels unsure, as Cymbeline (Edward Petherbridge), 1st-century king of Britain, wars with the Romans, while his wicked queen (Joanna McCallum) plots to put her slow-witted, lethally inclined son Cloten (Guy Henry) on the throne; meanwhile Cymbeline's disowned daughter, Imogen (Joanne Pearce), wanders the Welsh wilds disguised as a boy because her husband, Posthumus (Damian Lewis), has decided she's untrue because Iachimo . . . .
Things go on like this for a while. The god Jupiter makes an appearance, along with Posthumus's dead parents. Imogen unwittingly finds shelter with her brothers (Jo Stone-Fewings and Richard Cant), who live in the forest, not knowing they are the king's sons, because his old counselor Belarius (Ian Hogg) . . . Never mind. All comes out right in the end.
The Imogen-Posthumus-Iachimo plot is the most successful element in the play. Steadfast, courageous Imogen bears comparison with the heroines of the great comedies, and the grave, gentle Pearce, with her beautiful low voice, does well by her. Posthumus, who first makes a bet with Iachimo about Imogen's virtue and then is fool enough to believe that scoundrel's lies, is a loser of a character. Though the handsome Lewis does what he can to make the character more impulsive than stupid or mean, the happy ending is somewhat marred by the audience's suspicion that Imogen is way too good for him.
Imogen is threatened not only by the lying Iachimo but by the dim but lethal Cloten, played with elegant comic psychopathology by Henry. Cloten -- who has to keep correcting people who pronounce his name "Clottin" -- is an extremely unpleasant fellow and would probably be dangerous if that didn't require so much concentration. He comes to a fittingly violent end (praise here to whoever designed his severed head, which is a surprisingly recognizable portrait of Henry).
Petherbridge's troubled, suffering Cymbeline affects us more than the part has any right to since it's only, as Petherbridge himself has remarked, Lear with all the good bits left out. As the Queen, McCallum is an outsize, flamboyant schemer, like a Disney cartoon villainess.
Anthony Ward's costumes borrow from medieval Japan, and the strangeness and stylization help to unite the play's somewhat disparate parts. Still, nothing can help the place toward the end when Posthumus, whom the playwright seems to have forgotten for a couple of acts, suddenly returns in a most undramatic fashion: When he's not spouting long, poetically uninteresting soliloquies, he's dreaming about his folks and Jupiter. The play pretty much stops dead here, and there's nothing Noble or the cast can do about it.
Ward's set is somewhat less successful. He relies on an enormous drapery that can hang over the stage like a ceiling or be lowered to form a partial backdrop, and people often have to stoop under it to make their entrances. At one point, this drapery is used as a scrim on which a shadow battle is thrown, this after Noble has already staged one battle featuring immense banners and balletic movement. The production begins to feel too fussed with and loses some of its narrative smoothness. In the final, outrageously long and thorough reconciliation scene, however, Noble (with Petherbridge's help) brings some ironic lightness back to the proceedings.
Theatergoers who saw Joe Banno's wild, sexy, perverse and drastically cut version of "Cymbeline" a couple of years ago at Washington Shakespeare Company will find a whole new play here, a fable with touches of gentle humor and visual splendor, a charming "once-upon-a-time" hearthside tale. Cymbeline by William Shakespeare. Directed by Adrian Noble. Lights, Hugh Vanstone, re-created by Geraint Pughe; music, Stephen Warbeck; sound, Paul Slocombe, re-created by Rebecca Watts; musical direction, Richard Brown; assistant director, Kate Raper; movement, Sue Lefton; fights, Terry King. With Jenifer Armitage, Rod Arthur, Paul Bentall, David Glover, David Hobbs, Nicholas Hutchison, John Kane, John Killoran, Vincent Leigh, Rex Obano, Shuna Snow, Paul Swinnerton, Ewart James Walters. At the Kennedy Center through July 5. Call 202-467-4600. CAPTION: All's well that ends well: Damian Lewis and Joanne Pearce as the jealous Posthumus and his wife Imogen. CAPTION: Joanne Pearce as courageous Imogen and Guy Henry as plodding Cloten in the RSC production of "Cymbeline."