The young woman in this double-hander by Mexican author, Edgar Chias, has certainly not struck it lucky with the men in her life. When she was a pubertal child, she was sexually exploited by a cousin who convinced her that her nipples were getting puffy because they were filling with poison. He "cured" the situation on a regular basis by sucking them. One of the "uncles" that her mother brought home performed similar wonders on the troubling lesion developing between her thighs.
And now, working as a chambermaid in a large hotel, she's confronted by an elderly man (Nicholas Le Prevost), who's idea of good "room service" is quite demanding. It involves, for example, telling him personal stories like the above). Every night, he summons her to bring him a brandy to his darkened room.
The maid (Vanessa Bauche) has a lovely attentive face that registers her wariness, curiosity, arousal and hurt with moving subtlety and precision. Like one of those self-referring photographs that include a photographic image of themselves, the play has a scene where the troubled intellectual has the maid read out a newspaper report about the suicide plunge of another hotel chambermaid and the release from custody of the male guest judged too ill to have driven her to this fate through sexual overtures.
Despite or because of this, the heroine keeps bringing him his brandy each night and sits on the bed viewing pornographic images and listening to his rant about how men are driven by the dream of "invading, stretching, flooding". She's patient with his obsessions and narked when he doesn't follow things through with her.
Inevitably, the proceedings turn bitter and twisted. Hettie Macdonald's production has excellent atmospherics. It's strikingly staged with the audience on either side of a narrow, spooky hotel-room set. But the play (given a fine translation by David Johnston) is uncertainly strung between black comedy and melodrama as it examines the mismatch between male and female desire.
Cymbeline is a mad play. And Kneehigh is a mad company. Plainly, they were made for one another. It was an inspired move on the part of the RSC to commission this Cornish-based outfit to do a treatment of Shakespeare's strange late play for the Complete Works Festival in Stratford. Of all the late romances, Cymbeline is the most meta-theatrical. Again, this is right up the street of Kneehigh who revel in the blackly comic clash of tones and anarchic knowingness.
They also seem to have something of a fetish for putting actors in parkas. A posse of nerds policed the company's recent wonderful take on Tristan and Isolde at the National and there's a similar chorus in this Cymbeline. It rewrites the play, giving it contemporary language and setting - apart, that is, from those moments of beauty in the Shakespeare where it would be a crime to deviate from the original.
The play is an extraordinary mix of pseudo-history, an Othello-like study of misogynist jealousy, romance about a sundered and then re-soldered family (lost brothers, and in Wales, to boot). And it has to be said that Kneehigh's brand of jokiness suits some of the strands in this odd tapestry better than others. But the company's ability to mood-swing from wackiness to wonder is often remarkably affecting.
In this version, which is directed and adapted by Emma Rice, Imogen (played as a little spitfire by Hayley Carmichael) seems to count for less than is usually the case and I think that this area could be improved.
It's not an evening for purists, but I much preferred this inventive spree to the horrible monocular version of Othello brought to the Festival by a company from Munich.
'On Insomnia and Midnight' to 7 October 'Cymbeline' to 30 SeptemberReuse content