#ImogenReclaimed at the Globe (2016)
Reviewed by Urszula Kizelbach, Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań
Much as we may wonder why Cymbeline, one of Shakespeare’s last comedies, was included in the section of “Tragedies” in the First Folio, it is no longer surprising the moment we see the play performed at the Globe stage. Matthew Dunster’s production explores the full tragicomic potential of the play text and gives voice to a daughter of Cymbeline, Imogen, who is accused of adultery by her husband Posthumus, who needs to guard her female virtue from her dim-witted half-brother Cloten, who needs to dress up as a boy to save her life against death and the vicious Queen’s attempts to poison her, and who is finally reunited with her husband and her two brothers Guiderius and Arviragus who at the age of three were stolen from their father by a banished British Lord Belarius. Classic. Cymbeline is not among the most frequently staged of Shakespeare’s plays and there may be a few reasons for this: it has a convoluted plot, clichéd theatrical moments (Imogen weeping over a dead body of Cloten dressed as Posthumus, whom she takes for Posthumus) and examples of doggerel poetry (family singing songs over Posthumus’s sleeping body thinking he is dead).
Dunster’s contemporary rendition of Shakespeare sets the action plot in London in 2016, in a brutal world of gangs and drug dealers who rule the streets. The stage design resembles a slaughterhouse with its fluorescent lighting and butchers curtains, but it’s not only a reference to the bloody scenes in the plot. Jon Bausor, stage designer for the play, talks about his inspirations: “I’ve looked at abbatoirs and images of hanging meat that are as common on the streets of Brick Lane, Smithfields and Borough markets as they were in Elizabethan London”. The actors wear tracksuits, baseball caps and trainers to convincingly imitate the modern gang culture and to stay anonymous. The Britons wear black and the Romans wear white, and well known brands too, mostly Nike and Adidas. Again, Jon Bausor comments on the modern costuming: “Gangs aren’t a new phenomenon, and have existed in England since the Elizabethan era when groups like the Damned Crew [were] led by the grand sounding Sir Edmund Baynham. More recently London’s East End has seen Teddy Boys and Punks in [the] 1950s and 60s and nowadays the uniform of youth culture has moved to [a] more sportswear defined look that favours the colour black for its ability to disappear and conceal”. The Globe spices up this Tarantino-like show by advertising the play with a warning: This show contains everything you could possibly need to be warned against! STRONG LANGUAGE including loud music and explicit lyrics, DRUGS including marijuana smoking and cocaine snorting, VIOLENCE including gun fights, blood and torture, NUDITY including sexiness and a bit of nudity.
Let’s now have a closer look at some of the most memorable scenes from the performance. In Act 1 in the play Giacomo makes Posthumus bet on the “unparagoned” fidelity of Imogen, claiming that he will prove her unfaithful. Act 2 Scene 2 presents Giacomo hiding himself in a large trunk in Imogen’s bedchamber in the night in order to steal her bracelet and later show it to her husband. Dunster’s Giacomo, played by Matthew Needham, is clumsily crawling out of a huge black-and-white The North Face bag, which he himself unzips (the audience provides a comic relief by laughing at this activity), and he comes closer to her bed. Imogen (Maddy Hill) is sleeping undisturbed and is covered with satin linen; her bed hangs on ropes, it swings in the air and seems as light and fragile as Imogen herself. With music in the background, Giacomo delivers the lines and projects in his mind the furious reaction of Posthumus, but still he reaches for Imogen’s bracelet: “Come off, come off” (2.2.33) he says. Giacomo standing at her bed, wearing white sportswear and a ponytail resembles the Doctor Faustus of his times, he is fully aware of the consequences of his design; nevertheless, he pursues his plan: “Though this a heavenly angel, hell is here” (2.2.50).
Cloten’s part in the original play is not very extensive, his jokes are wooden, and if it wasn’t for the two Lords and their asides we probably wouldn’t even notice this heavy humour. He goes to Milford Haven to get revenge on Posthumus and kill him and later to ravish Imogen. In Dunster’s production Joshua Lacey’s Cloten is a phenomenal embodiment of a contemporary downtown ruffian/gangster, he is wearing a black tracksuit, a red Nike T-shirt and a golden chain. His hair is dyed blonde, he struts around the stage sniffing cocaine, threatening other characters with fists, and his recognizable attribute is a tape recorder playing loud rap and hip hop music. Lacey is very energetic and virile, his wanna-fight attitude is only emphasized by his swaggering gait. He speaks with an accent as in “There’s blood in me shirt” – the audience bursts out with laughter looking at Lacey’s injured Cloten who exhibits his shirt with a single drop of blood on it for everyone to see. Lacey’s embodiment of Cloten explores the comic aspect of this character pretty well – a vulgar half-wit with courtly ambitions. His relationship with Imogen seems to be more visible on the Globe’s stage than in Shakespeare’s play. When we look at Lacey, the only son of a drug baroness, the Queen, obsessively jealous and hateful, we understand why Cloten wants to get revenge on Imogen who rejected him and chose Posthumus instead: “She hath despis’d me rejoicingly, and / I’ll be merry in my revenge” (3.5.146-147).
Maddy Hill’s Imogen is “tender” and “artless”, which the actress herself explains as “genuine” and “unpretentious”. These qualities, in a way, reflect her character’s tragicomic role in Shakespeare’s play: she is “genuine” when she leans over Cloten’s headless cadaver (Cloten is killed by Guiderius at Milford Haven) thinking it is Posthumus’s dead body. Despite the macabre nature of this scene, Imogen’s naïvety and “unpretentiousness” make the audience smile benigningly to themselves, for example when she says: “A headless man? The garments of Posthumus? / I know the shape of’s leg: this is his hand: … / Where is thy head?” (4.2.308-309, 321). Dunster’s Imogen is feisty, she is “a kick-ass Shakespearean hero”, as the RadioTimes calls her, and not only when she dresses as a boy, Fidele, but also when in the final scene she confronts Posthumus, played by a charismatic actor, Ira Mandela Siobhan. But still, the tragedy intertwines with the comedy of her situation. She must dress up as a boy to escape death brought on her by her own husband upon false accusations of adultery; her stepmother the Queen plans to poison her, but she only drinks a sleeping potion, and afterwards she starts hallucinating and finds herself inside a greenhouse full of marijuana. She is slowly falling asleep singing Daft Punk’s hit “Get lucky”, but to the accompaniment of a sadder, instrumental version of the song. Imogen’s death-like slumber is beautiful, pastoral, and the only element reminding us about the play’s modern environment is her light blue tracksuit and trainers.
The tribal conflict between the Britons and the Romans is best reflected in the battle scene. In Act 3 in the play Cymbeline refuses to pay the annual tribute to Rome, for which Lucius, the Roman ambassador, declares war on the British. One group approaches from the left, the other from the right, and they start flying in the air, suspended on the ropes. The scene is extremely violent and dramatic, supported by loud music in the background. Dunster shows how Shakespeare’s Cymbeline creates an opportunity for a modern director to test the limitations and the strengths of the Elizabethan stage. He claims that Shakespeare’s stage directions invite a director to collaborate with the text and the story. He says: “There’s a hole in the stage and a hole in the roof for a reason … he [Shakespeare] wants you to be operating on different levels and, I guess, flying is a modern version of that”. In this way the scale of the fighting grows from more local to more universal, and the actors colonise the whole stage of the Globe theatre, smearing one another with blood.
Imogen is a show where Shakespeare, Stormzy and Skepta work together. It’s a show which attracts young audiences to learn more about Shakespeare, about London, and about the feel of the atmosphere of the Elizabethan theatre, which, as can be deduced from the commotion on Twitter, is not far from modern entertainment. Needless to say, it is always the audience who are the best judges of the performance, so let’s conclude with a comment by one of the Twitter users after the premiere: “#ImogenReclaimed shut down the @The_Globe last night! Epic. Electric. Exclamation mark. Everything. #wonderseason has been unbelievable”.
Youtube link to Skepta, a reflection of the ways the play was promoted in the electronic media and how continues alive on Twitter.
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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