I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoyed Cymbeline, and of my intention to go and see something in Emma Rice’s first season at the Globe. So the two came together quite naturally when she announced the season would include a production of Cymbeline, “renamed and reclaimed” for Imogen, the king’s daughter who is the real heroine of the piece*.
Maddy Hill, last seen in EastEnders, played Imogen in a modern-set, gang-based version which, let’s face it, does actually do away with many of the problems of distance which the original setting suffers from (how far away is Milford Haven meant to be, anyway?). The suggestion that almost everyone in the play is on drugs of various kinds does rather ease the passage of the more random elements of the plot, although I find myself hoping that Adidas coughed up a goodly amount in sponsorship, given the prominence of their branding English and Romans alike.
This was a carefully choreographed production, with dance-like nightmares and battles which made the flashes of real violence (Guiderius killing Cloten, Cymbeline torturing Romans) seem all the more horrific in comparison. Some of the power (of both acting and violence) was lost in repetition, however – after the first couple of time, slamming a character’s head against a desk induces fatigue in the audience as well as a nosebleed in the poor unfortunate victim.
It was also a modern production which relied on modern stage tricks. The Globe now has modern speakers, and the cast were all wired for sound. While this undoubtedly gives more scope for the production to use modern music**, it also meant, I felt, that the audience was more at liberty to “switch off”. No longer straining for every word, the groundlings (of which I was one) felt less engaged and (in the case of some German schoolkids behind me) felt perfectly at liberty to talk all the way through. It also felt less connected to the audience – all the other productions I have seen at the Globe acknowledge our presence but this, despite getting up-close and personal physically, still seemed to be holdings us at arm’s length.
The Globe stage was invisible behind a rig which allowed for aerial stunts – particularly effective in the fight scenes, and also gave lighting and backdrop options not open to other productions. It did leave me wondering what the value the Globe was meant to be bringing to this though – why it had to be staged there as opposed to any normal black-box theatre. It felt like every staging point they thought of had the same solution – build more set – rather than anything which came from the space or any other part of the production (another example – scenes in Rome were signified by the carrying on (and then off) of industrial fans lit with rope lights. Which were entirely unnecessary, as all the Romans were dressed in white rather than the black of the Britons, so it was in fact perfectly obvious just from the costuming where we were. All the scene-change did was slow down the action).
Somewhere in the middle of this song and dance, the acting was actually very good. Maddy Hill and Ira Mandela Siobhan as Posthumus were very well-matched. Joshua Lacey’s Cloten was a wonderfully repellent coked-up hooligan in an England shirt, and Claire-Louise Cordwell, in blinged-up tracky bums and a silver lame bra, was wonderfully malevolent as the Queen***, even if she did seem far to young to be Cloten’s mother… Scott Karim and William Grint excelled as the long lost princes, while Leila Ayad as Pisania and Erica Kouassi as Philaria brought heart to two traditionally male roles. My surprising favourite was Matthew Needham as Giacomo, the villain of the piece, who I last saw as Hotspur in the King and Country cycle at the Barbican. It shows the real skill of the RSC in bringing on talent that I mourned his end so much in Henry IV and wanted it so much in this production. If I had one serious complaint it would be the way Giacomo hid in Imogen’s room in a large rucksack – for me his zipping himself away brought back awful memories of the case of Gareth Williams.
AS to the “renaming and reclaiming” – this was still definitely Shakespeare’s play, of which Imogen (or Innogen, or What You Will) is the undoubted star. I didn’t notice any significant reframing of the play, with one exception: the complete absence of any apparitions. Fair enough, they don’t sit particularly well in a modern production (unless you decided to have Posthumus tripping on top of all the other drugs). It was great also to give Imogen, as the wronged party, the right to forgive Giacomo rather than Posthumus.
Altogether there was a lot to like. I’m still reserving judgement on Emma Rice, though – I’m not sure I saw from this how she plans to make best use of the Globe itself, and not just its obvious connections.
* But then when did Shakespeare ever name plays after his heroines? Joint billing seems to be the best they can hope for (Romeo and Juliet, Troilus and Cressida, Antony and Cleopatra) and even then their names always come second.
** You probably could play “Get lucky” on the recorder and lute, but it wouldn’t sound like Daft Punk…
*** Who doesn’t even get a name. Ouch.