Over-amplified and over-lit, this version of Shakespeare's Cymbeline at the Globe continues artistic director Emma Rice's demolition of the theatre's founding concept and the work of her two predecessors. It is hard to see what more she can do to trash the original ideas of Sam Wanamaker unless she takes his bronze bust out of the foyer and throws it into the Thames like Cloten's severed head.
This is the third new Shakespeare production on the Globe stage in Rice's opening season, and like the two that went before, it marks a sharp break with the work of Mark Rylance and Dominic Dromgoole, who stuck to Wanamaker's vision of a Shakespearean theatre with a minimum of lighting and natural acoustic sound. The difference may seem purely technical, but it isn't. I've been a regular groundling at the Globe since it opened in the late 1990s, and something magical has been lost. Rice's installation of heavy duty sound and lighting has destroyed the shared space previously enjoyed by actors and audiences and the unique complicity between the groundlings and great actors such as Eve Best, Roger Allam and Rylance. Instead, we have the same 'fourth wall' as in any indoor theatre, dividing performers and spectators and destroying any feedback between them.
I regret having to put the boot into Matthew Dunster's production of Imogen, because in many ways it is excellent; it's just in the wrong place. Were I to see it on an indoor stage at the National or in Stratford, I would give it high marks. The director has successfully found a coherent modern vision for a difficult play, much as Rupert Goold did for the RSC when he moved the Merchant of Venice to Las Vegas.
Retitling the play as Imogen makes perfect sense, and so does the interpretation of the leading character's story. Imogen is a young woman adrift in a misogynistic and violent gang culture led by men. Drugs are ever-present, and the Britons and the Romans are rival street gangs, fighting with knives. The play opens with cocaine-snorting on an industrial scale, and with Imogen being tossed around like a plaything. Cymbeline and his queen run a black-clad drug empire, while the Romans, wearing white, are trying to muscle in on their territory. Everyone wears branded sports gear and blingy jewellery, with some slight variations; the doltish Cloten has a red England soccer shirt, and the exiled Belisarius and his adopted sons wear shabby camouflage in their rural Welsh hideout -- a cannabis farm.
Hip-hop isn't my thing, but the movement and dance in this production fit perfectly into Dunster's vision. There's little room for lyricism, however, and it is no accident that the play's most famous lament 'Fear no more the heat of the sun' is heavily cut back. There is some very assured acting, especially from Matthew Needham as Giacomo. I also liked Joshua Lacey as Cloten, a part which Rylance once played himself on the same stage a decade and a half ago. Maddy Hill plays Imogen as a tough street kid with her own streak of violence, who is quite capable of pulling Cloten by the hair and hitting back. This Imogen is a tough survivor but doesn't give much sense of the character's internal conflicts and dilemmas.
Cymbeline is a strange example of Shakespeare's pastoral-comical-historical-tragical style, mixing up the genres in a way that modern audiences find hard to swallow. This production successfully gets round that problem by imposing its own vision. Some of the text gets mangled, there's quite a lot of rewriting, and I don't like the way most of the actors are miked up. But the show is far better than Rice's 'school disco' version of A Midsummer Night's Dream and the peculiar Irish-themed Taming of the Shrew that occupied the stage earlier this summer.
Emma Rice clearly thinks the original aspiration dreamed up by Sam Wanamaker of an authentic Shakespearean theatre that would build a unique relationship between audience and actors is nonsense; Shakespeare is a broad church and she is entitled to her views, but it is a mystery to me why the Globe board has allowed her to get away with it.