Sunday, 25 September 2016

Review Imogen (William Shakespeare's Cymbeline Renamed And Reclaimed)

William Shakespeare's Cymbeline Renamed and Reclaimed

Romans (Rap) In Britain

As far as TLT could recall from her dim and distant past of Shakespeare studies, Cymbeline is a bit of a ragbag of Shakespeare's Greatest Hits. Echoes of King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet and Twelfth Night abound.

It's also part of that loose association of plays in lit crit which are known as "problem" plays (but also a romance or tragicomedy) with its improbable plot and eponymous character who is out of the picture for much of the play's running time.

Director Matthew Dunster's adaptation focuses instead squarely on the character of Imogen, daughter of  kingpin drug dealer Cymbeline, who in any case always has the most lines in the play, far more than the King of the Britons, her father.

In fact, TLT's little but learned hatchback reminded her there are only four Shakespeare plays with women in the titles. Like joint bank accounts, the male name automatically comes first in Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet and Troilus and Cressida and it's only in The Merry Wives of Windsor where women stand merrily alone.

Cymbeline (Jonathan McGuinness) is Britain's most powerful drug dealer running a gang producing a factory conveyor belt's worth of Class A substances. Meanwhile far off Rome is home to a rival white tracksuited bling drugs' gang.

One of Cymbeline's lieutenants Belarius (Martin Marquez) is falsely accused of treachery and in revenge for unjustified exile steals Cymbeline's two sons Aviragus (William Grint) and Guiderius (Scott Karim)  bringing them up as his own. Only Imogen (Maddy Hill) remains within the drugs' gang compound.

Previously, Cymbeline had brought Posthumus (Ira Mandela Siobhan), the son of another of his lieutenants, who had been murdered into his inner sanctum. With gangland members as nannies Imogen and Posthumumus are brought up together eventually getting it together and secretly making  it legal as wife and husband.

But Cymbeline has married again and the new Queen Bee in the drugs' gang (Claire-Louise Cordwell) has a definite sting. She and Cymbeline want Imogen to marry her cocky son Cloten (Joshua Lacey) from a previous marriage. So when Cymbeline discovers the marriage of Imogen and Posthumus, he banishes the latter to keep them apart.

Before he goes into exile to Rome, Imogen and Posthumus exchange love tokens: He gives her a bracelet and she gives him a diamond ring.

The rest of the play pivots round a bet with devious Giacomo (Matthew Needham), placed against Imogen retaining her virtue which Posthumus is lured into and tricked by whilst in exile,  Imogen escaping Cloten's clutches in disguise as a boy, the Romans and Brits in gang warfare and how Cymbeline's family is reunited,  the fortunes of Belarius and finally Posthumus restored and the latter coming to see how wrong he has been about Imogen's supposed adultery.

With its rather awkward mix of pantomine, fairytale, Britain's mythic history and revenge tragedy-like gruesomeness, it's already a romcom which  fits with a certain modern cinematic sensibility.The updating of Cymbeline to embrace gangland culture isn't entirely new.  There's a 2014 US movie set in biker culture directed by Michael Almereyda ending with Imogen and Posthumus riding off into the sunset on a motorbike and freedom.

But this is set in current day London, including a historical nod to West Side Story and The Long Good Friday, with its transparent butcher's shop curtains, rap, hip hop and electronic music  - Skepta's Man, Daft Punk's Get Lucky amongst others - and gangland honour culture. Branded tracksuits are the gang uniform in an interpretation, cutting out much of the supernatural gumph, giving the story in some respects recognition and clarity for modern audiences.

It's also literally an electric show - the Globe stage is flooded with artificial light and miked and electricity is bound up with the drugs' gang concept of the show (design by Jon Bausor and lighting by Lee Curran). That's to say the hydroponic drug "farms" with their steep electricity bills.

At the same time, there's a certain cost to the balance of the play. Rather than Imogen as a Renaissance babe (ok, maid) emerging with untutored virtue out of barbarous Britain, Imogen, although clean of drugs, ends up as a potential narcotics' gang matriarch.

That's not to say this version of the play does not work on its own terms It does. It's loud and it's brash. There's some clever, punchy updating of the text through pauses and modern speech patterns giving new meaning to old words.

There's a little too much hand gesturing and self-conscious feel to Maddy Hill's Imogen, more comfortable on the Globe stage when she dons her male disguise and becomes an active figure rather than the previously more passive recipient of bad news.

There's also a notable playful and tender performance from Grint's Averagus with deaf signing feeling a natural part of the play. Nevertheless the updating doesn't have the rigour and attention as this season's other problematic play "The Taming Of The Shrew".

It flattens Cymbeline into a gangland tale and the comedy and violence no longer form part of a delicate Shakespearean meditation on inherent nobility threading together the pastoral, the court and the supernatural in its concerns, language and dramatic contrasts.

Without these skeins giving the possibility of a more idealistic existence, it also feels rather lengthy. But - and in these days, it's a big (positive) but - the dancing (choreography Christopher Akrill), blunt black comedy, music, aerial acrobatics and choice use of pauses to twist lines into current speak may still find an appreciative audience, especially those who come to Cymbeline for the first time in this version focussed on Imogen. An amber light for an electric performance which, despite its flaws, still leaves many in the audience on a high.

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