FringeReview UK 2016
Director Matthew Dunster avers Imogen (‘Shakespeare’s Cymbeline Renamed and Reclaimed’) is ‘a dance piece with text coming out of it.’ Hence Christopher Akrill’s choreography isn’t confined to the wondrous break-dancing that concludes the play, but invades fight scenes where Matrix-like people fight in mid air, flip over and slither up and down. Designer Jon Bausor concentrates on black British, white Roman figures and a Smithfield abattoir replete with a stripped aluminium and steel world, opaque curtains and on occasions carcasses, pig and human fulfil the brief.
Director Matthew Dunster’s perhaps taken a hint of permission from the RSC’s Gregory Doran renaming Much Ado as the potentially missing Love’s Labour’s Won. Thus Imogen is ‘Shakespeare’s Cymbeline Renamed and Reclaimed. It’s also Dunster avers ‘a dance piece with text coming out of it.’ Hence Christopher Akrill’s choreography isn’t confined to the wondrous break-dancing that concludes the play, but invades fight scenes where Matrix-like people fight in mid air, flip over and slither up and down. Designer Jon Bausor concentrates on black British, white Roman figures and a Smithfield abattoir replete with stripped aluminium and steel world, opaque curtains and on occasions carcasses: pig and human fulfil the brief.
There are two ways to mount a lesser-known work: reverently trick out its hidden genius, or slash/burn reinvent as not a thing worth wholly saving. In months, the Globe’s tried both with this text, and both productions enjoy revelations, not least superb Cymbelines. Elsewhere things curdle or flurry but this version thrubs a taurine cocktail of high-kicks, moulding trademark Globe energy with sassy re-thinks which sometimes lack that drive. No danger here. Dunster’s ‘refocusing’ the text usefully cuts away some of the play’s famed unevenness, though occasionally rubs out details with modern précis where the original was clear enough. ‘A cinque-spotted mole’ owns the specificity and eroticism its omission fudges.
It’s London 2016; tribal gang warfare hinges on drug deals, a coke-sniffing queen with a sideline in deadly potions from the original that might have spawned the conceit. Cymbeline, a magnificently self-levering Jonathan McGuiness turns in a gnarly godfather too swayed by Claire-Louise Cordwell’s vicious-slinky Pearly Queen, ‘for she was beautiful’ he later avers. If some speakers sound wet between the estuaries the sub-Berkoff snarls here enliven our sense of Cymbeline’s power, compromised but deadly. The Queen’s serpentine longing is to place her oafish but here sadistically pusillanimous son Cloten on the throne. Joshua Lacey struts and fleers Cloten into life, then falls prey to expert butchery.
Dunster does his best to strip the essential romance-filing that places this late play with the quartet culminating in The Tempest. Romance is still there of course, poison queens, lost heroines in forests, these can’t be turned into Angela Carter. Dunster’s way with a plot that turns on a hero Posthumous too easily believing scheming Iachimo’s (now Giacomo’s) false reports of seducing his wife for a wager, is to create a court and a forest viscerally brutal with casual torture and near-murder at all turns – more Titus Andronicus than A Winter’s Tale but there too old men have shoulders ripped off by bears and here no-one good actually dies. We’re persuaded it’s only by a hair’s breadth. Even the doctor’s life hangs in the balance for reporting truly. Hence Posthumous’ order to Pisanio (now Pisania, spirited Leila Ayed) to kill Imogen at Milford Haven fits – though doesn’t excuse a casual brutality.
Maddy Hill’s Imogen stands out in track-suited androgyny – though is rather regularly stripped near-bare by her bachelors or Cymbeline’s minders, a plaything who made the wrong choice and whose assertion turns this drama to her name, since she has 23% of the text to Cymbeline’s eight. Her male attire brings her a new cast of brothers, much acted out in a greenhouse of marijuana (the rustics’ response to coke harvests).
Hill’s energy, natural speech-rhythms and raw suffering make her an outstandingly believable Imogen. Not the whole Imogen, not the subtly sexualised compromised Imogen some make her, let alone ardently pure Victorian.
Her furious come-on to Pisania to end her life, her harrowing out to the headless corpse of – she assumes – Posthumous (his clothes, Cloten within) rend Imogen even from the gentle comedy Shakespeare sets up, her naming the body parts as nobly Posthumous, when she despised them as Cloten’s. Her love for Posthumous is graphically sexual and returns to that, but not before she’s allowed lines of her own to confront his perfidy, both freeing him from his bonds and berating him, and diverting to herself his lines addressed to Matthew Needham’s believably repentant Giaocomo. It is for her to forgive.
The finest voice comes from abductor faux-parent of Cymbeline’s two sons (an early dumb show of the three babes with balloons provides comedic horror). Martin Marquez’ Belarius exudes ex-soldier soured by betrayal. There’s fine work too from Scott Karim and Okorie Chukwu as the sons. The latter speaks in sign-language. At the most heart-stopping moment, McGuinness’ Cymbeline signs back in recognition. No matter he was abducted at three, this single gesture’s the stuff Shakespeare would see as making the whole world kin.
Posthumous though brawning his way across the stage in fight scenes, loses his redemptive dream at Act V’s opening, which sets him up again as a central character; and thus the wonder setting the final scene. Ira Mandela Siobhan bulks with dignity, hurt, and finally convinces us of a death wish. Less tricksy than Measure for Measure’s denouement, but as complex and more affecting, the final scene’s not the impossible fable Bernard Shaw rewrote but an overwhelming experience. Its twists – particularly the terrible blow Posthumous strikes ‘Fidele’ – still elicits gasps from an audience that gratifyingly doesn’t know the plot and whose honest primal response leaps back four hundred years. And Imogen’s belatedly saving the Roman Caius Lucius provokes deserved hilarity.
Laughter too easily comes though, the story hasn’t entirely been told, and could descend to farce – not quite the production’s fault. The Globe perhaps isn’t the venue for such patient unwinding, hence Cymbeline being mounted in the Blackfriars theatre now served by the Wannamaker. Nevertheless this production’s (particularly vocal) power is just the tonic some of those occasionally reverent recreations could have mainlined.
There were unnecessary maulings, unfair on an audience who don’t know the original. Considering we have Imogen singing a contemporary song with wistful intensity, it goes hard to cut out all but the first two lines of Fidele’s dirge. If we’re getting London, why not chimney-sweepers, even if it does refer to dandelions too? And dust… A lovely 2016 song perhaps, but George Dennis is sound designer, not a composer.
And there are anachronisms unresolvable. Letters sent in person from Rome to Britain when sexting might cut it? An intimate text gone astray. Or Giacomo sending a graphic image of that cinque-spotted mole to Posthumous. Rome represented by large whirling fans is meant to be more than a flight away.
Emma Rice’s concluding gambit for the main stage in her first year as Artistic Director is to allow the risk-taking apparent even in the RSC to filter into a world hermetically sealed from it. Some things had staled, those dance-offs finally being subverted were mostly anachronistic, dating from before the Globe with Will Kemp. So beginning in Dominic Dromgoole’s last seasons a shift has turned avalanche. It’s been pointed out that Mark Rylance and Dromgoole both endured drubbings then become the rule. This production sucks in a whole audience and breathes it out with laughter. Its power’s a popular, indeed populist one, very much the Globe’s, abutted as it is by the Wannamaker’s verisimilitude. And here in Maddy Hill’s furious dove we’ve identified an Imogen many can reclaim, or claim for the first time.