The final new production in Emma Rice’s inaugural season as the Globe’s artistic director is a reimagined version of the rarely played Cymbeline. Instead of focusing on the King of Britain, it is centred on his daughter, the princess Imogen, and her fight to live freely with her chosen husband, Posthumus.
Upon discovering the couple have married in secret, Cymbeline imprisons Imogen and banishes Posthumus from court; he ends up in the company of Romans, where he is befriended by Giacomo. Posthumus boasts to him of his wife’s beauty & fidelity, leading him to make a rash bet with the shady Giacomo – he visits Britain & obtains ‘evidence’ of Imogen’s adultery, causing Posthumus to order her murder. In order to escape death (& the advances of her step-brother, Cloten), Imogen disguises herself as a boy & heads off towards Rome. Meanwhile, war with the Romans has broken out. In the ensuing battle, all parties end up reunited without realising it – as well as Cymbeline’s two long-lost sons who had been raised to men by their captor, Belarius (a general wronged by Cymbeline twenty years previously).
As you can see, it is a complicated story to try & summarise! This, as well as the fact that Imogen has twice as many lines as Cymbeline, makes it apt for reimagining. This version is set in the East End of modern London, using the idea of gang warfare to show the violence & turmoil in the country. It is also a hugely physical production, using dance or movement wherever possible, keeping dialogue to a minimum in many scenes. This approach works remarkably well, in particular a hugely innovative (partly aerial) battle scene and an opening group dance that creates a thrilling & anticipatory atmosphere.
Being set in the present day, tracksuits & sportswear are the chosen costumes: black for Britons, white for Romans. The only anomalies are the disguised Imogen in blue, and her abducted brothers (& their believed-to-be father) in camouflage & green. These simple distinctions ensure the audience knows who’s who, or at least which side they’re on, which in turn assists in the natural flow & pace of the story. The stage itself is largely bare, surrounded by a large butcher’s curtain, with the occasional addition of furniture, a floating bed and, in the later stages, a greenhouse. This no-frills approach ensures that there are no distractions, and is in line with both the almost universal monochrome colour palette, and the rebalancing between action & words.
Rather than live musical accompaniment, the soundtrack is mostly popular music (they’ve created an online playlist if you’re curious) that blasts through the sound system, as well as an onstage ghetto blaster on a couple of occasions. Tensions are heightened between scenes by the sound of ominous beats; whilst it is largely played as a comedy, there are big elements of drama & action to incorporate. It’s a credit to Matthew Dunster’s vision, and the talents of an incredible cast, that this works so perfectly.
The company has been drawn from a combination of the ‘traditional’ drama school route and community drama schemes such as Generation Arts. There are a couple of Generation Arts graduates in the cast: Erica Kouassi (Philaria) and Malik-Sankara Mosiah Watson (Caius Lucius).
Jonathan McGuinness (Cymbeline) deserves a special mention, performing the entire show (including his parts in the group dances) on crutches. During the performance I thought this might’ve been a prop/costume choice, perhaps to show a slightly weakened or less effectual monarch, but this is not the case. It doesn’t prevent McGuinness from moving about the stage & showing aggression when needed.
Playing his stepson, Cloten, Joshua Lacey, manages to provide equal amounts of comedy & revulsion – he has perfected a laddish strut that is both hilarious & a brilliant choice for his character. Decked out in clothes reminiscent of a football hooligan, he is an immediately recognisable figure in each scene.
Matthew Needham pitches his interpretation of the villainous Giacomo perfectly; for the most part he is cunning with a huge amount of self-interest, but his epiphany when threatened with death later on is entirely believable. There is also a particularly brilliant moment of contortion that Needham undergoes to enable Giacomo to gain access to Imogen’s bedroom undetected…
But the true star of the show is obviously Imogen herself, in a revelatory performance from Maddy Hill. She is, quite simply, extraordinary. Whether she’s throwing herself into the physical aspects of the production or pouring her heart out in one of Imogen’s heartbreaking speeches, Hill’s commitment is faultless. She is also incredibly funny when the situation calls for it – two comedy moments that immediately spring to mind are the times she is forced to invent a name for herself as a boy, and later a decapitated body she is found grieving over. Hill brings exactly the kind of fresh, vibrant energy a production like this needs in its central character, and helps it reach stratospheric heights.
My verdict? An inventive take on Shakespeare that really packs a punch – dramatic innovation at its best, performed by stars in the making.
Imogen runs at Shakespeare’s Globe until 16 October 2016. Tickets are available online and from the box office. Standing tickets for £5. You can donate to Generation Arts or get involved with their current projects.