As I left the Globe following the opening of Imogen I was stopped by a group who had been drawn to the gates by the booming music filling the Southbank. "Is that Skepta in there?" they asked. Passers by may well be confused by the grime music soundtrack filling the night air, but rather than being a surprise gig by the recent Mercury Music Prize winner I explain it was actually a new production of Shakespeare's late romance Cymbeline, "renamed and reclaimed" by director Matthew Dunster to focus on Imogen, the daughter of the King of the Britains who defies him by marrying against his wishes.
Culturally appropriated Shakespeare is certainly nothing new, and within Emma Rice's 'Wonder Season' it has become the rule rather than the exception. Set in the East End of London it opens with all the arrogance and bravado of a Kanye West music video, an intimidating crew physically showing the inner workings of a drug cartel against a clear slatted abattoir curtain. They say audiences will get onboard with any concept as long as it is established strongly enough within the first ten minutes, and Dunster does exactly this, providing a strong context for this reclamation. At times the concept is a little too black and white - quite literally - and as a resident of east London for the past six years it didn't quite pick up on the full feel of the area, instead choosing to focus primarily on the gang warfare aspects that turns the British and the Romans into the Sharks and the Jets.
Purists will bristle at the casual approach to the text, and the vocal handling of the verse which is sometimes spotty throughout the wider company. It rarely matters however as the storytelling remains crystal clear yet never patronising. There's always a risk when reclaiming Shakespeare that it can feel in some ways dumbed down, and whilst it certainly shares the edge of a Channel 4 sitcom it more than justifies this fresh approach and manages to levitate the often overlooked work into the higher echelon of Shakespeare's canon. As Bernard Shaw astutely observed the final act undermines the play and has strains of self parody with its somewhat improbable denouement, but it's this act that is played the straightest and for that reason becomes the most rewarding.
I've always been drawn to the paganism and magical realism of Shakespeare's original play, with its Wicked Stepmother, magic potions and estranged family members that give it a fairy tale edge. The decision to rename the play to focus on Cymbeline's daughter Imogen is perhaps the most confident aspect of the production, wholly justified by Maddy Hill's strong central performance that charges through the narrative becoming a vital epicentre. Slightly strained in the first act I found her more comfortable in disguise, but by the final act I cheered at her command of both stage and situation.
I was less convinced by the aerial dramatics that saw various scenes, most notably the battle, played out on counterbalanced bungee wires which were never used enough to feel totally necessary to either the storytelling or the overall aesthetic. The militant delivery of the gang warfare felt effectively dangerous and sinister whilst the amplified energy is maintained successfully by the committed supporting cast. Joshua Lacey struts around the stage like a caged beast as the dangerous Cloten, matched by an effective Matthew Needham and Ira Mandela Siobhan.
At times it feels like an overly self-conscious effort to break from the traditional trappings of The Globe and the play itself does suffer because of this preoccupation. Those who dislike their verse being replaced by a stripped back version of Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" will no doubt cry sacrilege, but I've rarely seen a Globe audience so visibly engaged and left feeling truly heartened for the effort. An accessible and justified reclamation that will no doubt divide critics but intrigue even casual passers with a vision that's as bold as its blaring soundtrack.
What the Press Said...
"I’m not objecting to experimentation and radical interpretation per se; and there’s no denying that this late play has a sprawling quality that tempts the secateurs."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"EastEnders actor Maddy Hill brings gutsy toughness as the heroine of this refocused Shakespeare adaptation, but Matthew Dunster’s violent setting seems at odds with the play’s sentiment."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"If the quality of the verse speaking is variable, it’s collateral damage, a ransom to be paid for the unusually varied mix of performers."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard