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Imogen **

The Globe, 26 September 2016

Imogen, which opened at The Globe this month, is Cymbeline “renamed and reclaimed.” Well, renamed certainly, but from whom has it been reclaimed? Who had it before? The playwright?

Well, we all know what is going on here. The director, Matthew Dunster, believes Cymbeline is really Imogen’s story as she has twice as many lines as her father. The Globe is telling us that this play has been “reclaimed” by them from an elementally sexist society, in which Shakespeare, having had the grave misfortune to be born in 1564, is indubitably a part.

It is unlikely, for example, that The Merchant of Venice is going to be renamed Shylock, despite the fact that Shylock has many more lines than Antonio. There’s no political point about a patriarchal system to be made there, so it will likely remain unclaimed.

Not only is this renaming a bit disrespectful to the playwright, it’s clumsy and patronising. If indeed this is Imogen’s story, audiences can work that out themselves through careful direction and performances, not by being hit over the head with it.

Unfortunately, the faults of this production don’t end with the heavy handed renaming. Rather, it’s a foretaste of what is to come. Imogen is agitprop, agenda as theatre, in which Shakespeare sinks slowly and surely beneath the waves so that by the end he’s pretty much invisible.

It’s set in modern urban London. The stage is distinguished by strip lighting and long frosted polythene curtains, swishing open with every entrance. During a long choreographed opening sequence, Cymbeline’s gangstas, in baseball caps and hoodies, are cutting up coke and, generally prowling around, to a rap beat. Belarius arrives to do a big drug deal.

Cymbeline is clearly a London drug baron while the Romans remain some unclassified rival gang. So, we’re back to the Jets and the Sharks, so it doesn’t really seem that fresh or ground-breaking. Moreover, it’s a less coherent and believable than the story we are given in West Side Story. Arthur Laurents and Lennie Bernstein made the Sharks Puerto Rican and the Jets Italian, but The Globe isn’t brave enough for anything that.

Both the British and the Romans are multi-racial, one gang being distinguishable from the other only in the colour of their tracksuits. The British are in black, the Romans in white, looking like Star Trek extras.

We’re being told to look beyond the colour of someone’s skin, something that real, live street gangs are often rather less prone to do. This also gets the production into some tight corners as well. When Imogen wakes, in Milford Haven, to find Cloten’s decapitated corpse wearing Posthumus’ clothes alongside her, she believes it is the body of Posthumus. This takes some believing under any circumstances, but when the actor playing Cloten is Caucasian and the actor playing Posthumus is not, one can only assume that to make such a mistake Imogen has been smoking a lot of Belarius’s weed.

Cloten (Joshua Lacey), the thug and would-be rapist of Imogen, has a sort of Charlie Chaplin walk but with a ridiculous swagger. He’s white, with short bleached hair, and wears an England football shirt. It’s a caricature, the only one in the show, rather than a performance, and by such touches does the London theatre establishment reveal its disdain for the white working class.

There is some good acting in here, but for the most part it’s forgettable. The actors seemed to have been picked for some other reason rather than their ability to say Shakespearian lines. Ira Mandela Siobahn, for example, as Posthumus, is a terrific dancer and looks pretty great with his shirt off but he delivers a performance of largely unrelieved blandness.

Maddy Hill, plays the title role as if Imogen has St Vitus’ Dance. She’s always on the move. She continually careers from side to side across the stage, and nearly every is delivered with a gesture of some kind. It’s exhausting to watch. One can understand that Imogen is having a bad day at the office, but occasional stillness would not go amiss.

Other actors give the impression of having never acted Shakespeare before in their lives, with no feeling for the text whatsoever.

It’s not a total washout on the acting front. Matthew Needham is very watchable as Giacomo while Jonathan McGuinness as Cymbeline, whose play it isn’t any more, exudes a nice small man’s menace, like Begbie in Trainspotting. But easily the best performance of the evening comes from Martin Marquez as the exiled Belarius. He provides the one of only genuinely touching moments of the production, giving Cymbeline’s abducted sons back to him. He looked after these boys as his own sons, but now surrenders them to their natural father, his voice on the edge of breaking.

Predictably, however, his beautiful funeral dirge over the body of Fidele, “Fear no more the heat of the sun,” is savagely cut. But we get plenty of street dance instead so that’s OK.

In what are becoming the hallmarks of the Emma Rice regime at the Globe, there’s a lot of music, choreography and sound effects. It’s very energetic and the dancing is great. The press night audience seemed to love it and the groundlings bopped around happily to the final dance sequence, led by Ira Mandela Siobhan.

But what this has to do with Shakespeare becomes less and less clear. The text is heavily cut, and what remains of it is treated with precious little respect. The production falls over itself to be accessible and relevant to a modern audience, but leaves large elements of any audience by the wayside.

The setting of modern street gangs, the use of rap, the street dance, Imogen singing Daft Punk’s Get Lucky – all of these seem to have been chosen simply because the director believes a young twenty-first audience will identify with them, not because they aid the understanding of the play.

More and more, Emma Rice’s productions seem to be also leaving the essential spirit of Wanamaker’s Globe behind her. The best productions here have taken the limitations of the space to their heart and worked within them to produce magic. At the moment, The Globe seems a hindrance to the light and music shows they’d really rather do.

Cymbeline is classified as a romance, neither a comedy or a tragedy, as is The Tempest. Certainly it has its very violent moments, but it’s a dreamy, otherworldly fantasy. There is no hint of this anywhere to be found in this production.

This is sometimes a problematic play anyway. The multiple disguises and reveals at the end strain anyone’s patience. George Bernard Shaw hated it so much that he wrote his own ending, which he believed far more credible. But the flaws of Cymbeline aren’t any less apparent in The Globe’s ‘Imogen’. What is has done, however, is to extinguish the virtues.


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