Imogen (Cymbeline reclaimed)


Globe Theatre


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.

7 thoughts on “Imogen (Cymbeline reclaimed)

  1. Sounds like an interesting and imaginative production of a play – I admit – I know next to nothing about.
    Like you, though, I wonder at the use of extensive sets, masking what makes the Globe such a unique space. I understand Emma Rice is trying to put her stamp on it, pushing the boundaries and there’s an argument that if productions just use the space as given they could become stale and restrictive. But using the shape of the theatre imaginatively is sort of the point, isn’t it? To me it actually shows a lack of imagination if you’re going to say ‘let’s just treat this theatre as we would any other’.
    As you say, perhaps too early to tell if Emma Rice’s stewardship is going to be a success.
    As always, a great review, Cymbeline 🙂


  2. westville13

    Lynn is spot on. The only benefit of any restriction on art (be it spatial, temporal or any other) is to force the artist into greater creativity. Set building out of trouble takes us back to Beerbohm Tree; in which case you might as well go for film or video. I am particularly disappointed to hear that the actors are now wired for sound; why not just do the play at the National or the Barbican or as street theatre?


  3. westville13

    The recent Guardian interview with Maddy Hill is interesting.

    This quote struck me in particular

    “The young, community-trained local actors who worked alongside seasoned professionals added the expertise to help the play’s authenticity: picking the right footwear, for example, became as important as a historically accurate doublet. “If anyone was wearing the wrong trainers, they just couldn’t go ahead,” Hill says. “If a dance move was suggested that wasn’t right, everyone would be like, ‘Uh, no.’””

    The emphasis on accuracy in costume and style sounds to me curiously old fashioned and Victorian. The period may be different; but the straitjacket is the same.


  4. Thanks Lynn and Westville!
    I minded less about the wiring for sound (some actors can’t project, and if you are going for a community production, as that piece with Maddy Hill suggests, the cast have more important things on their minds than reaching the upper galleries) than the really very loud recorded music and the unnecessary props.
    The review in the Guardian is very snooty, but there’s an interesting debate in the comments on whether it worked or not. It is certainly attracting more conversation than most reviews!


  5. I also forgot to mention – and I felt it was important after the whole “chimney-sweepers” debacle – that in fact “Fear no more the heat o’sun” was cut except for the first two lines, so we don’t whether Emma Rice really would have gone for the dandelions or not. Presumably they couldn’t write themselves a grime version…


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