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Style has trumped substance before, but rarely so simply and with such grace. Spare and elegant, awash in vivid jewel tones and rich fabrics, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Cymbeline is a solid if somewhat too reverent reading of a notoriously problematic page from Shakespeare’s folio.

Why problematic? Take your pick: convoluted interlocking plot lines, characters that aren’t nearly as complex as the events that surround them, a pair of central lovers ill-matched in temperament and motivation, and a late excursion into dreams and prophecy that brings the action to a crashing halt. Why too reverent? Because though he’s abridged the play, director Adrian Noble could’ve cut more; the proceedings feel repetitious and absurdly rambling toward late evening.

Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s later efforts, but it’s not among his tightest works—it’s been proposed that he was bored with playwriting by the time it was written. It concerns a princess who loves a man despite the king’s will, a pair of long-lost princes, a wager about the princess’s chastity between her betrothed and a scheming Italian, and the machinations of an ambitious queen who hasn’t got anybody’s interests but her own at heart.

The action—suspend disbelief here—involves disguises, secrets, misconstructions, and a small war, not to mention a visit from the god Jupiter. Written after the similarly prolix Pericles and probably before The Winter’s Tale, Cymbeline seems, more consciously than most Shakespeare, to have been constructed with an eye toward pleasing both the unwashed groundlings and the theater-going intelligentsia at court and at the Blackfriars Theatre. Plot elements are drawn from Boccaccio’s Decameron, from Holinshed’s histories (a favorite Shakespeare source), and probably from earlier romances that, in keeping with Jacobean and Elizabethan tradition, emphasized the triumph of love, noble intent, and fidelity—aided by fate and sometimes the heavens—over duplicity and ill will. Logic and common sense be damned: With Cymbeline, Shakespeare was playing broadly to the tastes of his time.

The Washington Shakespeare Company’s low-budget mounting of the play in December 1996 surmounted script problems by cutting many scenes entirely and dressing the rest up in modern trappings. For the RSC’s tangibly expensive version, Noble takes a less drastic approach, trimming speeches but generally not whole scenes, and giving us a picture of first-century Britain that might have been imagined by a troupe of Japanese players. His courtiers mince and bob; the noblemen wear skirted samurai-ish tunics in scarlet and aubergine and green; a servant trails the wicked queen (clad in a sweeping cloak of gold-and-black tissue) with a tiny parasol on a perversely long pole, looking like something out of a rice-paper watercolor. A vast canopy of pale muslin swoops and levitates, serving as floor, backdrop, ceiling, and screen as necessary. It’s stark, strange, distancing imagery, and yet lovely, too, and it somehow helps make the oddball plot easier to digest; this business couldn’t happen here, we think, but in this bizarrely beautiful world? Why not?

Performances are generally confident, as you might expect from what’s reputed to be the world’s premier Shakespeare ensemble. The princess, Imogen, is one of Shakespeare’s stoutest-fibered women, brave and bright and virtuous, but Joanne Pearce gives her a wide-eyed vulnerability as well. The actress’s rich contralto might seem a trifle affected to some (though I found it mesmerizing), and her body language a whit on the stagey side, but there’s no doubting she’s the solid core of the production.

Her beloved, Posthumus, is meant to be the hero, though he never quite seems Imogen’s spiritual or moral peer (and he disappears for what seems a ridiculous stretch of the play’s second half, to boot). He needs a keen and sympathetic interpreter, and Damian Lewis, who comes across as stiff and prideful, doesn’t seem quite right. Edward Petherbridge is more engaging, both fragile and resolute as Imogen’s father, the aging king of the title; he makes us see the human side of an authority figure who can easily seem cold and capricious.

Guy Henry is one of the production’s surprising pleasures; he’s both funny and subtle as Cloten—the class-conscious dolt of a son the queen wants to marry off to Imogen—a role that’s easy to play for broad laughs. His mother (Joanna McCallum) is deliciously Disney-ish evil embodied, all skulk and stalk, sleek hair, and forbidding penciled eyebrows on a pale face. Come to think of it, she bears more than a little resemblance to the nasty queen of Snow White—and though there’s no apple here, she does slip Imogen a potion that sends her into a deathlike sleep.

The one real disappointment is Iachimo (Paul Freeman), the dashing Roman who turns Posthumus against Imogen on what’s basically a lark. (Well, it has roots in a sophisticated Italian’s contempt for a British rube, but never mind.) Freeman’s Claudius in the RSC’s just-concluded Hamlet was a potent but restrained characterization, but here he’s a near-vaudevillian villain, a creature of caper and leer.

He looks great, though—as does everything about the production, designed with severe economy by Anthony Ward. That spare sense of style—and the framing device Noble has devised, which sets up the entire story as a tale told fireside by a Zenlike priest-oracle figure—helps make Cymbeline’s fantastical plot seem both mythically resonant and identifiably, intimately human.CP