Despite being a dramaturg and Shakespearean scholar, this performance marks my first encounter with Cymbeline. Now that I’ve seen it I doubt I would be able to tolerate any production that does not allow Imogen to place her foot firmly on sinister Giacomo’s throat. Imogen fulfills the satisfying fantasy of righted wrongs and revenge that Shakespeare’s other tragedies frequently deny us. Whereas I always shout at Othello, ‘Ask your wife!’ in the hope that listening to the audience would fix Desdemona’s tragedy of miscommunication and jealousy, Imogen shouts it for us, as well as for herself, as the wife who has been slandered. In contrast to Desdemona, suffocated in her sleep, Imogen is given a second chance and seizes it. Instead of being Hero, silent in her reconciliation scene, Imogen demands that Giacomo beg forgiveness from her for what he has done.
The play is set in modern day London, with gang rivalries between Britons and Romans established by brand loyalty. Cymbeline and his followers wear black Adidas trackies, while the Romans sport glorious white. The king rules not only Britain, but an illegal drug trade, inspecting drugs as they pass in and out of his lab. The Queen’s son Clotus sports an overly masculine swagger, wearing a red football shirt and clutching his crotch as he walks. While the premise of Imogen’s secret marriage to her former childhood playmate, Posthumous, seems feeble in this new contemporary setting, the injustice of her marriage being ruined as Posthumus and Giacomo bet on Imogen’s fidelity are sadly not so far-fetched. Giacomo’s plan to win the bet for Posthumus’ wedding ring is creepily staged as he smuggles himself into Imogen’s room in a duffle bag and sneaks over to her bed as it hangs like a rocking cradle. His grin as he raises Imogen’s duvet to look at her naked body is not an outdated act of violation.
Perhaps, though, what makes this production truly contemporary is not the humorous yet seamless infusion of Stormzy and Skepta into the soundtrack, nor Imogen’s melancholic, drugged singing of Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’, but the fact that the victim of slander and sexual violence gets to speak and be believed. Clotus and Giacomo’s desires to rape and slander Imogen fail, and fail miserably with grotesque, graphic violence. Even if the narrative didn’t tell us, we would know from their gaits, their costumes and their haircuts that they are the villains here. Modernisation gives us familiar social cues akin to twiddling a moustache or sweeping a black cloak to suggest who we should trust and who we should not.
Continuing with the elements of modernisation Emma Rice has introduced to the Globe, the cast are given microphones and neon lights line the stage. The raw wooden finish has been replaced by a black floor, the red marble columns painted drab grey, and the stage itself is enveloped in coroner’s plastic curtaining. Bass booms. Fight scenes are staged in dance and using aerial acrobatics. In a dramatic fight scene the men fly in a confusing tangle of spinning bodies until everyone falls limp in their harnesses.
Director Matthew Dunster has done everything to establish that this play is part of a paradigm shift at the Globe. Imogen demonstrates that experimentation means pushing the limits of what the space can do. Inadvertently, decisions like painting the columns grey – and therefore blending in with the darkening sky – necessarily raise the question of why stage this production here when could be performed in a contemporary space.
Yet it also asserts a response to the gate-keeping question of who is allowed to perform at the Globe, and the answer is: everyone. Imogen is populated with actors from a variety of training and social backgrounds, from physical theatre DV8 to Deaf theatre to RADA. This includes Imogen’s long lost brother, Arviragus, played by Deaf actor William Grint. The character’s intimate reconciliation with Cymbeline is in British Sign Language. Cymbeline’s reply in hesitant BSL seems to reach out for Arviragus’ passionate speech as father and son reunite. This moment, with the integration of BSL into the characterization and plot demonstrates the production’s motif of inclusivity. Highly ambitious in its scope and reach, watching Imogen is a beautiful experience.
Imogen is on at the Globe until 16th October 2016. Click here for more details.