All praise Emma Rice! Under Dominic Dromgoole’s artistic directorship, The Globe’s commitment to innovation in Shakespeare production first established during Mark Rylance’s reign fell by the wayside in favour of new writing; his Shakespeare generally stuck to original practices (OP) that Rylance and his team developed and championed. Shakespeare under Dromgoole was largely in this safe, now established style. There is value to be had in OP productions without a doubt, but entire seasons of it year in and out could certainly put off a seasoned regular. OP productions are so helpful in providing context for exams and a novelty to those who’d never seen this sort of work before, but for someone who has seen a lot of Shakespeare, there’s nothing inherently interesting in yet another OP production.
Rice’s appointment made the old, middle class (usually male) academics positively apoplectic what with her lack of Shakespearian credentials, intention to innovate and blatant feminism. Others were ecstatic on hearing the announcement – finally, Shakespeare that’s fit for the 21st century and something unlikely to have been seen before on the Globe’s stage. Since the season’s opening, her heavily adapted productions have received mixed notices from the mainstream press who, like the academics that bemoan the death of tradition, are mostly middle aged or older men, white and middle class (there are obviously exceptions).
Matthew Dunster’s urban Imogen, the final show of Rice’s inaugural season, is the opposite of the restrained and well-spoken Shakespeare that these scholars and press use as a benchmark for quality. This anarchic gangland update of Cymbeline is exceptionally alive, aggressive, dirty and unapologetic. If we want young people and the general populace to take interest in Shakespeare, this is the sort of relevant work we need – not another well-spoken, corseted rendition. This production will rile those aforementioned critics and scholars, but they are wrong. It’s an absolute, undeniable fact that Dunster’s Imogen is a necessary, vital work.
Most of the ensemble employ a contemporary urban/London accent that comes with an undertone of aggression and a ballsy edge. Its energy and rhythm still works within Shakespeare’s verse, even without the open vowels and carefully pronounced consonants. The use of contemporary additional lines and ad libbing is no different than what is likely to have happened in Shakespeare’s day, and furthers the production’s accessibility. It is the accent of youth, the working class and this country’s disenfranchised. Dunster’s small choice to use this accent gives entire demographics validation on stage – their stories and lives are important and worthy of attention.
Placing young princess Imogen at the centre of the story is an empowering choice – Maddy Hill plays a strong, feisty and independent young woman. She admirably fights off her laddish step-brother Cloten’s (Joshua Lacey) revolting advances and for her husband Posthumous (Ira Mandela Siobhan) that her dad Cymbeline (Jonathan McGuinness) banished. Her constant battling against patriarchal structures that keep her second place to men rings painfully true today. Hill is supported by an outstanding ensemble that is racially, ability, and gender-diverse.
Jon Bausor’s simple but evocative set is reminiscent of a slaughterhouse or meth lab. Plastic sheeting that wraps around all but the very front of the stage shifts the antechamber forward so it’s closer to the audience, and can be drawn all the way back in the name of flexibility and openness. Flooring drives action towards the middle of the stage unnecessarily, though the front corners are still used – just not with any regularity. This is one of the production’s only faults.
Conventional and aerial fight choreography by Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown doesn’t shy away from graphic tribal/gang violence and is of an appropriate scale for such a grand venue. Tracksuits and trainers are a functional uniform that’s easily colour coded to indicate Roman or English allegiance. This is a world where only the strong survive and the risk of betrayal is high, though there are gorgeous moments of tenderness, intimacy and brotherhood amongst the hardness. Shakespeare’s story translates remarkably well to this modern context, and the concept is imbedded thoroughly into the re-worked text, including the final jig.
In Dunster’s Imogen, we see a Shakespeare that is hip, relevant and achingly alive. People from all walks of life can see themselves reflected in his modernised characters, not just the well-spoken middle and upper classes. Dunster’s commitment to Rice’s mission to make the Globe a place where audiences “ cheer and whoop and smell and feel the spit of actors on our faces” thorough, laudable and wholly necessary.
Imogen runs through 16th October.
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