The reality myth and miss

Paul Taylor on the rarely sighted `Cymbeline' and `Camino Real' at Stratford

Shakespeare's Cymbeline and Tennessee Williams' Camino Real are not the sort of plays that cause stampedes to the box-office, so, with the opening of both this week in Stratford, the RSC can't be accused of playing safe with repertoire. Towards the end of the Williams, one of the characters is moved to allude to the famous TS Eliot line that "Humankind cannot bear very much reality". After seeing these two works on consecutive evenings, you feel that it is humankinds' capacity to tolerate unreality that has been diligently tested.

A virtuoso exercise in tonal incongruities and discrepant emotional extremes, Cymbeline juxtaposes the wildly improbable and the piercingly heartfelt, the beautiful and the grotesque. This is pushed to the limit in the scene where the heroine Imogen, believed dead, is laid next to a decapitated corpse. When she comes round, the clothes trick her into thinking that this grizzly object is her husband. The audience knows that it is, in fact, her nasty ridiculous step-brother, Cloten, so her speech of stricken recognition is delivered in a context pregnant with black, bad-taste comedy.

The greatest asset in Adrian Noble's main-stage production at Stratford is Joanne Pearce, who, in the role of Imogen, has the flexibility to present her at some moments with a kind of warm, playful detachment and, at others, with a stunning emotional raptness.

In this heavily cut version of the play, pre-Christian Britain and the Rome with which she is in conflict over tributes have been given a strongly oriental look - Two Little Maids from School meet the Seven Samurai in a bare blue box within which a huge, sail-like white sheet is raised and lowered to define the various locations. Characters trip on and off via a ramp that extends down one of the aisles. Notwithstanding all this distancing exoticism, Cymbeline's lost sons - played with a droll artful artlessness by Richard Cant and Joe Stone-Fewings - speak with the broad Welsh accents of the wilds where they've been reared.

Noble makes the complicated proceedings unusually clear - the mind-knotting expository dialogue between the first and second gentlemen at the start has been re-cast and reduced to a scene-setting narrative told by the soothsayer to a nomadic tribe sitting round a flaming dish. This puts the production on the right fable-like lines. Shades of the Victorian pantomime villain are perhaps evoked too strongly in Paul Freeman's smooth dastard of a Iachimo, but Guy Henry interestingly turns Cloten into an effete class-conscious dimwit who - in a way that is almost pathetic - knows deep-down he is a born loser.

Tennessee Williams once revealed that he got the germ of Camino Real from the sudden fear he once experienced, as he watched a torch-carrying procession in Mexico, of Dying in an Unknown Place. In Camino Real, that place has become thoroughgoingly mythical: a desiccated, out-of-time, central American coastal town, with a desert beyond its ancient walls. Stranded here are a group of romantic non-conformists from history and literature who are presented as past their sell-by date (they include Casanova, Marguerite Gautier, Don Quixote, and Lord Byron). They are joined by another has-been, Kilroy, an American vagrant who was once a champion boxer but had to ditch his career because his heart's "as big as the head of a baby".

Darrell d'Silva brings Kilroy engagingly to life in Steven Pimlott's atmospheric, bustling, and endless-seeming production. But, as a play about the fate of the romantic in modern society, the piece can only offer an inert allegorical conflict between characters who have an unearned poignancy by virtue of their contrived temporal position and caricature baddies.

Moving performances from Susannah York as Marguerite and Peter Egan as Casanaova did not prevent the experience of watching this long and heavy- handed play from feeling like a chore. It's the kind of work you can enjoy the virtue of having seen. Once.

`Cymbeline' is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre; `Camino Real' at the Swan. Both in rep. Booking: 01789 295623

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