Review 10.


A Midsummer Night’s Dream at The Young Vic Theatre

Directed by Joe Hill-Gibbins with design by Johannes Schütz

Main Cast: Michael Gould, Thesues/Oberon; Anastasia Hillie, Hipollyta/Titania; John Dagleish, Lysander; Jemima Rooper, Hermia; Oliver Alvin-Wilson, Demitrius; Anna Madely, Helena; The Mechanicals: Matthew Steer, Peter Quince; Leo Bill, Bottom; Sam Cox, Robin Starveling; Geoff Ayemer, Tom Snout. Lloyd Hutchinson; Egeus/Puck.


When we think of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the sort of things that conventionally come to mind wouldn’t be out of place in one of those wonderful fairy-emporium shops – like those that Glastonbury is famous for. But this Dream, directed by Joe Hill-Gibbons, definitely stands outside of this. We’re in no a fantasy fairy wood – rather we are out in the field: literally and metaphorically. The characters stand on a semi-circular muddy stage, illuminated by harsh halogen bar lamps that run around the inner rim of its edge, and all backed by a mirror. Lovers will wrestle (both carnally and competitively) in this mud – as if it’s the last day at Glastonbury. This post-festival vibe seems a deliberate appeal to the idea that (as Emma Garland puts it in her piece for Noisey, ‘Having Sex at Festivals Isn’t Just Disgusting, It’s Shit.’) ‘summer music festivals are basically the closest thing humans have to mating season’[1]. For the mud covering the stage becomes a physical representation of love stripped bare – revealing it in all its messiness: un-idealised, raw, and at times grotesque. Yet we are also out of the fairy-Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Young-Vic-147.jpgwood in another sense. As we look at the stage we cannot avoid seeing ourselves – reflected in the mirror backing the stage. Indeed our faces might as well stand in for the trees of the wood where the Dream we are about to watch takes place.

At the same time, the mirror acts as a constant reminder that we are in fact an audience. It essentially removes the forth wall – like the signs held up by actors announcing the scene changes in Brecht’s theatre; an act that aimed to encourage the audience to recognise themselves as an audience, and therefore to be discouraged from over-identifying with the characters on stage, giving them space to adopt a more ‘socially critical’[2] attitude to the characters. But it’s not just the mirror that makes us feel disconcertingly alienated from the play’s main action. For whilst the characters all wear modern clothing (they could easily be any member of the audience), their movements stop us from becoming fully involved with them emotionally. Throughout the performance, none of them leave the stage (although sometimes they stand or sit in rows facing us along the shelf-like niches to the left and right of the mirror; they sip from bottles of water, almost as if we’re seeing the actors backstage). Instead they move around mechanically – like commuters-cum-cyborgs – creating different scene-zones on the bleak, and otherwise empty, stage. Sometimes they just stop, like puppets whose strings have been dropped, and face plant into the mud. They don’t seem quite human; or rather they seem to be humans controlled by some sort of impersonal force.

And, in many ways the characters in this play are. The plot is a tangled knot of love-ties made and un-made by magic, and often in response to social norms. At the play’s start we are met by Hermia, whose father (Egeus) is attempting to have her

‘consent to marry with Demetrius’,

instead of Lysander (the man with whom Hermia is in love). Lysander’s social standing is equivalent to that of Demetrius; Egeus is, on the face of it, more concerned by the fact that Hermia marrying Lysander would conflict with his having power over her according to the social norms of their society:

‘I beg the ancient privilege of Athens,

As she is mine, I may dispose of her:

Which shall be either to this gentleman

Or to her death, according to our law

Immediately provided in that case.’

He claims that Lysander has

‘With cunning […] filch’d my daughter’s heart,

Turn’d her obedience, which is due to me’.

It is to the Duke Theseus that Egeus ‘begs’. Theseus himself is soon to wed Hippolyta, MidsummerNightsDream-JR_feb17and
in this production an interesting parallel is drawn between Hermia (now lying face down in the mud, having heard Theseus support her father’s appeal: ‘to you your father should be as a god’)  and Hippolyta. Before this scene we watched Hippolyta (dressed in a suffocatingly tight looking black suit) ritualistically put on high heels; she seems to struggle to put them on – and when she places her feet down the skinny-stilettos quickly sink and stick in the mud. Throughout the scene she appears to be almost limping. This ritualistic dressing in restrictive (and debilitating) clothing seems to reflect her restrained and almost fearful reaction to Theseus’ speaking of their soon to come wedding (and night):

‘O, methinks, how slow

This old moon wanes! she lingers my desires’.

Hippolyta looks on, rigid, going along with what is expected of her – she seems constrained by her situation, just like Hermia.

But unlike Hippolyta, Hermia decides to rebel – running away with Lysander into the woods. They are followed by Demetrius (who has been told of their eloping by Helena, who is in love with Demetrius and spurned by him). But the woods are inhabited by magical beings, and the lovers’ arguments disturb them. Puck (servant to Oberon the fairy-king) is sent by his master to quiet them down. He puts the juice of a plant that will make the recipient fall in love with whatever they see when they wake on Lysander’s eyelids – mistaking him for Demitrius (Oberon wanted Demitrius to fall for Helena). Lysander wakes to see Helena, and falls for her. In his interpretation of this element of the play, Hill-Gibbins seems to take some cues from Jan Kott’s (whose 1964 work Shakespeare Our Contemporary explored the direct connections he saw between Shakespeare and then-modern European drama, including Brecht and Beckett) feeling that ‘the reduction of characters to love partners seems to me the most peculiar characteristic of this cruel dream; and perhaps its most modern quality’[3]. Lysander and Demitrius wrestle in the mud, like male animals in mating season jacked-up on testosterone. They seem mnd-11completely out of control – or controlled by something beyond themselves. Of course the magic Puck has used on them is out of their control, but it is difficult not to read their animalistic behaviour as revealing our idea of human love (which we like to imagine exists on a level beyond the physical – we tend to idealise the notion of finding ‘the one’, or our ‘soulmate’) as, at base, an impersonal appetitive drive.

Even before Puck puts the juice of the plant on Lysander’s eyelids, we see this in action. As they lay down to sleep on the forest floor, Lysander tries to persuade Hermia to allow him to lie next to her:

‘One turf shall serve as pillow for us both;

One heart, one bed, two bosoms and one troth.’

She refuses him,

‘Nay, good Lysander […] lie further off’,

but he persists,

‘riddl[ing] very prettily’ 

(as Hermia puts it) to try and talk her into it. This is brief, and after her second rebuttal he seems to have learnt his lesson:

‘Amen, amen, to that fair prayer, say I;

And then end life when I end loyalty!

Here is my bed: sleep give thee all his rest!’

However, in this production we can’t be so sure. For as he ‘riddle[d]’ he was pulling Hermia into a close and distinctly sexual embrace: reaching under her skirt, and seeming not to hear her words as he started to lie her down. It is only with the help of her legs (kicking and pushing) that Hermia manages to force a response to her panickedmethode-times-prod-web-bin-2a9d5b20-fa9d-11e6-a6f0-cb4e831c1cc0.jpg

‘Lie further off’.

Even Lysander seems shocked at his behaviour – as if he doesn’t quite understand how he could have been so possessed.

Despite this, when Lysander turns in favour of Helena, the women behave just like the men – wrestling in the mud. They even throw handfuls of it at each other, along with verbal abuse (centring on physical attributes – Hermia’s being shorter than Helena):

‘Her height, forsooth, she hath prevail’d with him.

And are you grown so high in his esteem;

Because I am so dwarfish and so low?

How low am I, thou painted maypole? speak;

How low am I? I am not yet so low

But that my nails can reach unto thine eyes.’

It all sounds (excuse the anachronism) bizarrely Darwinian. If this is the state of young love, we are given an insight into more mature relationships in Theseus and Hippolyta, and Titania (the fairy-queen) and Oberon – who are both played by Michael Gould (Theseus/Oberon) and Anastasia Hillie (Hippolyta/Titania). These dual roles develop a parallel between the two pairs – although one between foils: Theseus’ sexual dominance, versus Oberon’s jealousy and feelings of sexual inadequacy; Hippolyta’s uptightness, versus Titania’s sexual yearning. We see Theseus at the play’s start looking in the mirror, flexing his muscles as he dons a black silk dressing gown – he looks like Hugh Hefner. Theseus’ dominating sexuality contrasts the sexual anxiety of Oberon. For he is angry that Titania refuses his request that she give up her page-boy to him. In retaliation he takes the same plant that he orders Puck to put on Lysander’s (and, later Demitrius’) eyes, and to use it on Titania – ensuring that when she wakes the first thing she sees is

‘some vile thing’.

This turns out to be Bottom – one of the Mechanicals (a small theatre band led by Peter Quint), who has been transfigured by Puck into a man with an ass’ head (making Oberon’s queen seem an ass for falling in love with an ass).

As Titania wakes from her fairy bower (in this production simply a patch of the mud covering the stage; in the foetal position she seems vulnerable) she sets eyes on Bottom – and falls in love. When she sees him Bottom (hilariously played by Leo Bill) is singing – but instead of the traditional song (which gives actors the opportunity to do their best impression of a donkey: ‘Whose note full many a man doth mark, / And dares not answer nay;-‘, hopefully rousing tumultuous giggles from the audience) he sings Aerosmith’s ‘I Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Young-Vic-137.jpgDon’t Wanna Miss a Thing’. Whilst some might miss the traditional moment of comedy, Leo Bill’s increasingly whiney (and cringey) rendition of Aerosmith is truly hilarious – with each increase of volume drawing a peal of giggles, and eventually outright hard laughs. However the song choice also draws out the sexual politics between Titania and Oberon: ‘I could stay awake just to hear you breathing / Watch you smile while you are sleeping / While you’re far away and dreaming’, is both tender and not a little creepy – we could easily imagine the jealous Oberon singing it. But the song also fits in with this Bottom: he looks like a festival-going guy with his long hair, too-tight skinny jeans, wellies and aviator spectacles, exuding a sort of teenage sexual energy, which Titania seems to find exilherating – liberating, even. He seems to allow her to be more open with her sexuality. She takes great pleasure in caressing his ears – which are actually a pair of stuffed nude tights (reminiscent of Tracey Emin’s ‘My Bed’; he wears another pair on his arms, and he also wears another pair around his waist – except that this is stuffed with an empty Evian bottle, and is unmistakably phallic). Bottom taps into a deep vein of Titania’s sexuality: raw, inelegant, and dirty. We see this in particular when Titania calls upon three of her ‘fairies’ to serve Bottom:

‘Peaseblossom! Cobweb! Moth! and Mustardseed!’

No fairies come. Instead Titania takes on their roles – in a sort of erotic role play. Even Bottom seems sexed-out by her; in response to her role-playing there comes only an abashed ‘sorry’. Perhaps this is why she refuses to hand over her page-boy to Oberon – the latter cannot give her what she needs.

It seems that Oberon has underestimated the power of Titania’s sexual appetites. Later, when Hillie (Titania) is again Hippolyta, Bottom’s (now in the role of Pyramus as part of the play the Mechanicals put on for Theseus and Hippolyta’s wedding) speech in anguish believing his lover, Thisbe, to have been killed by a lion, Hippolyta is moved –

‘Beshrew my heart, but I pity the man.’

It’s as if a switch has clicked in her head; for from here on out she seems more Titania than Hippolyta. Bottom too seems to recognise her, and he addresses his speeches (as Pyrimus) to her – stressing, in particular, their carnal imagery –

‘Come, come to me,

With hands as pale as milk;

Lay them in gore…’

– as they grow closer and closer, eventually entwining themselves, as they sink onto the muddy ground. Again lovers are ‘reduc[ed…] to love partners’ only – something that is emphasised by the farcical performance of the Mechanicals (acting as if acting badly is Midsummer-Nights-Dream-Young-Vic-214.jpgnotoriously difficult, but these Mechanicals do it well – Sam Cox’s teenagerly-defiant ‘Moon’ and Aaron Heffernan’s childishly-fastidious Thisbe are particularly good). They perform the Tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe – before Pyramus believes his lover, Thisbe, to have been killed by a lion, they whispered their love to one another through a wall (a physical symbol of their families’ denial of their wanting to be together). But when he believes his lover to have been killed he rashly throws himself on his sword – and, when Thisbe returns, seeing her love dead, kills herself too.

We hold this narrative as an idealised view of true love: it is, in essence, that of Romeo and Juliet (the plot of which Shakespeare’s 16th to early-17t century audience would have been familiar with, just as we are today). But it is undeniable that there is a degree of comedy in the extremity of the lovers’ impulsive actions – even something of the grotesque. The Mechanicals’ performance is meant to be amateurish, but the degree to which their performance hangs together as something that we can still term a ‘performance’ is a matter of direction. Hill-Gibbins chooses to allow it to totally dissolve (with Bottom’s becoming descending into the mud with Hippolyta/Titania in a quasi-carnal embrace) – drawing out the grotesque element in the Mechanical’s show. For example the Lion wears only his underwear, and one of the stuffed pairs of tights that were Bottom’s ears; when he roars he does so flailing his arms about madly. This makes the formal (almost courtly) commentary of the characters watching the play (Theseus, Hippolyta, Lysander, Hermia, a-midsummer-nights-dream-at-the-young-vic-01-c-keith-pattison-58b973f4eaa87-58b975c3339bc.jpgHelena, and Demitrius) seem completely disjointed – perhaps suggesting that the notions of love that we sustain in society (e.g. idealising ‘the one’ – as Romeo and Juliet do to one another, so much so that they choose to die as opposed to living without their respective ‘one’) fail to marry up with love in reality. The broken figures of Hermia – face in the mud at the feet of Lysander – Demetrius and Helena, on either side of the Mechanical’s ‘stage’ epitomise this: the mud they are caked in seems a sort of metaphor for the emotional damage love has done to them.

We might say that ‘love’ has caused them this pain, but it was Puck who took Lysander for a-midsummer-nights-dream-imageDemitrius (Oberon sent him to use magic on Demitrius to make him fall for Helena), and thereby set the lovers sparring in the mud. It seems that Kott’s influence is also strongly seen in this Puck. Kott’s Puck is not ‘just a playful dwarf from a German fairy tale, or even a poetic gremlin in the fashion of a romantic féerie’[4], and nor is Hill-Gibbins’. This Puck is an ageing punk, irritable, and bitter – he wears a scraggy red and back wig. His mistaking Lysander for Demitrius is not a ‘playful’ gaffe, but rather an act of deliberate negligence: he simply doesn’t care. In this regard it seems Kott’s influence can be seen in a far more fundamental sense, for it is Puck who ‘pulls all the characters on strings’[5], ‘put[ting] the mechanism of this world in motion’[6] (manipulating relationships of love; he might even be seen as the mechanism of love in physical form) – and in this production, as he does so, he literally ‘puts it in motion and mocks it at the same time’[7]. When Oberon demonstrates (with many elaborate gestures) how the juice of the plant is to be used, as he

‘streak[s Titania’s] eyes’

with it, Puck imitates him self-mockingly – and when it comes to his actually using the plant he goes further. Instead of miming the delicate placement of the plant’s juice onto Lysander’s eyes (as Oberon showed him) he takes one of the bottles of water (sat on the shelf-like part of the back wall) and drips it onto Lysander’s head; he looks up at the audience grinning – waiting for a response. We laugh; he opens the bottle again and proceeds to empty its contents onto Lysander’s head. We laugh again, more loudly this time – his seemingly excessive cruelty is oddly funny; he begins to beat Lysander with the empty bottle.

Therefore, if we do understand this Puck as in some sense to represent the mechanism of love (‘the mechanism of this world’; it is worth adding that he occasionally acts like a stage director – albeit one who is apathetic to the health of his actors – he violently throws Demitrius and Lysander from the shelf-like niches along the back wall onto the stage), we simultaneously find ourselves regarding him as personifying cruelty, and indifference. The last of these are reflected in other moments. For example when Bottom (now returned to his fully human form) tediously runs in circles around the stage – until he is tripped up by Puck, when he continues his laps, but now on all fours like an ape or a baby. This is funny – but in the absurd sense. For it seems that, like the character’s in the Absurdist plays of Beckett (that are often read as presenting worlds that are apparently indifferent to humanity, and where human life has no inherent value or meaning), Bottom is going nowhere (even regressing – devolving into an apish/baby-like crawl) – and is not helped by the apparently arbitrary action of ‘the mechanism of this world’ (Puck). As the play draws to a close the cast, led by Titania (who holds Bottom’s hand), all join hands in a long MSND4.jpgline; she runs – pulling everyone along with her – running them in circles, and what seems like impossible knots. However, the chain remains single-file: everyone is left chasing – never catching, never making a meaningful connection.

Still in single-file, they press themselves against the mirror (which has been mostly painted over; now it is simply a black wall – with the exception of a small section at the top in which we can see only ourselves), with their backs to the audience. This effectively isolates us, the audience, from the characters – who jump as if trying to reach the reflected faces (our faces) in the small strip of mirror left unpainted. Hermia draws giggles from us as she jumps more aggressively than the rest to make up for her being (in her own words) ‘so dwarfish’. Is it cruel for us to laugh? Or do we laugh to distract ourselves from the disconcerting sense that these characters have suggested (and are suggesting) to us that love is not what we think it to be? For in the world they present us, love is not an idealised vision of finding ‘the one’ or our ‘soulmate’, rather it is a a case of impersonal forces drive people together (just as they may drive us apart – consider the case of Lysander and Hermia). Further, as they stand reaching up to our reflections in the mirror, they seem to question the the very notion of being ‘together’ – challenging the idea that we really can form meaningful human connections at all.

Some have said of that this production of Dream ‘dispenses with all of the magic and much of the comedy’[8]. They aren’t wrong. The laughs evoked by this comedy are not jovial – they aren’t full of the warmth of a midsummers’ night. Rather they are laughs spurred by disorientation and discomfort when two contrary ideas collide (challenging a conventionally held conceptions). They are the laughs the idea of a ‘British summer’ can bring, or the seemingly crazy and carnal acts attending music festivals (like Glastonbury) can unleash. And whilst its arguable that the striking staging might detract from the poetry of Shakespeare’s words (as might the focus on physical theatre – for example Bottom’s running around the stage), it might equally be said that it draws out challenging themes that our conventional fairytale-like conception of Dream shies away from. Puck ( delivers the last words of Dream:

‘If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber’d here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend:

if you pardon, we will mend:

And, as I am an honest Puck,

If we have unearned luck

Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,

We will make amends ere long;

Else the Puck a liar call;
So, good night unto you all.

Give me your hands, if we be friends,

And Robin shall restore amends.’

This production asks us to take a position: to stay in a dream of love as we imagine it (an idealised quest where finding ‘the one’, or our ‘soulmate’ is possible: ‘think but this, and all is mended’), or to wake up to its realities (as this production presents them – perhaps epitomised in the arbitrary, indifferent, and sometimes cruel Puck: ‘the mechanism of this world’). Do we ‘the Puck a liar call’? That’s up to you.


More information about the production can be found at: 


by Emily Swettenham

7th March 2017.



[1] Garland, E. 2014. ‘Having Sex at Festivals Isn’t Just Disgusting, It’s Shit’. Noisey. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 7th March 2016].

[2] Brecht, B. Collated by Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. Translated by Davis, J., Fursland, R., Giles, S., Hill, V., Imbrigotta, K., Silberman, M. and Willett, J. Edited by Silberman, M., Giles, S. and Kuhn, T. 2015. Brecht on Theatre. Third Edition. Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.: London. p.g.187.

[3] Kott, J. Translated by Taborski, B. 1964. ‘Titania and the Ass’s Head’. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. Methuen & Co. Ltd.: London. p.g.176.

[4] Ibid. p.g.172.

[5] Ibid. p.g.174.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Hemmings, S. 2017. ‘A midsummer night’s misogyny at the Young Vic’. The Financial Times. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 7th March 2016].


Review 9.


The Tempest at the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre in Stratford Upon Avon

Directed by Gregory Doran for the RSC in collaboration with Intel in association with The Imaginarium Studios

Main Cast: Simon Russell Beale, Prospero (the right Duke of Milan); Jenny Rainsford, Miranda (Prospero’s daughter); Mark Quartley, Ariel; Joe Dixon, Caliban; Daniel Easton, Ferdinand (son of Alonso, the King of Milan); James Tucker, Alonso; Tom Turner, Sebastian (Duke of Milan, Prospero’s brother); Oscar Pearce, Antonio; Joseph Mydell, Gonzalo; Tony Jayawardena, Stephano; Simon Trinder, Trinculo.


Over twenty years ago, in Sam Mendes’ 1993-4 production, Simon Russell Beale played a deeply untraditional Ariel: one that, unlike the tradition of Ariels before him, was austere and intensely disdainful of his master, Prospero. Most notably, at the close of the play when Prospero affectionately grants Ariel his freedom –

‘My Ariel, chick’

[…] Be free, and fare thou well!’

– Beale drew an ‘audible gasp from the audience’[1], when he spat in the face of his ex-master (perhaps implying freedom is a right, not a gift). Now, this shocking Ariel has succeeded in conquering his master – literally: for Beale returns to The Tempest as Prospero, and in a production (directed by Gregory Doran) that is both unconventional and breathtaking, although in a rather different vein. This Tempest is brought to us in thp_mdg_181116shakespeare-_01jpgcollaboration with tech-giant Intel (in association with Imaginarium Studios), and employs some of the most advanced technology ever seen in theatre. This is perhaps appropriate for a play that was written in the early Jacobean period, when the theatrical vogue was the masque; elaborate and often extravagant performances that incorporated music and dance alongside drama delivered by masked actors[2]. Indeed, The Tempest itself contains a masque (the ‘vanity of mine art’ that Prospero conjures to celebrate the nuptials of his daughter, Miranda, and Alonso, the King of Milan’s son, Ferdinand) and seems to have been written with some intent to exploit the technical innovations that the masque form brought with it. Not least because originally it was to be performed at the Blackfriars (a small, intimate and enclosed theatre, unlike the open-air Globe – better equipped to support the mechanical requirements of masques). But more importantly the centrality of magic to the plot, (for example in the tempest Prospero generates that opens the play, bringing the play its cast of castaways, which makes all of the goings-on that follow possible) would have given more opportunities to employ the theatrical machinery of masques in new, and more serious ways.

In 2017, Doran looks back to this tradition of extravagance just as he aims to look forward into the possibilities of combining theatre and technology in a computer age. We see this from the very first scene. The Tempest opens with just that: a tempest – a storm magically conjured by Prospero to capture a ship carrying Alonso, the King of Naples, who is returning from the marriage of his daughter, Claribel, to the Prince of Tunis. But it isn’t just the King that Prospero is after. He also wants to get his hands on his own brother and now Duke of Milan, Sebastian, who conspired with Alonso to usurp him (the right Duke of Milan) – succeeding in having both himself and Miranda (his daughter) kidnapped and set adrift at sea to die. As lights flash and bend across the stage floor (giving the illusion of a rocking motion as if the stage – itself contained by the skeleton of a ship that appears to have been modelled on the remains of the Mary Rose – is being tempest-tossed) a spiral of what looks like fabric above – reminiscent of the eye of a hurricane – extends itself downwards. And, as it does, an image appears upon it – illuminated in brilliantly bright blues and greens. The silhouette of a man, sinks down its length – as if he is being rexfeatures_7440787kinexorably pulled down by his back, drowning, towards the stage floor. Prospero looks on. Although we will later discover that no one really drowned, it is this frightening image that introduces us to the magnitude of Prospero’s ‘art’: beautiful, astonishing, but simultaneously terrible – all of which he recognises and understands.

It is significant that he is seen to recognise all of the potential aspects of his magic, because it makes him morally culpable for choosing to use it to create fear. The first time we see Prospero call upon Ariel – who appears in the form of a CGI avatar, projected onto the same fabric-pillar as was used in the initial tempest, and moving in sync with the live movements of the physical embodiment of Ariel, Mark Quartley – he asks (responding to Ariel’s prompting the question of his freedom),

‘Dost thou forget

From what a torment I did free thee?’

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_-press-call_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207545-tmb-gal-670and proceeds to

‘recount what thou hast been,

Which thou forget’st’, 

reminding Ariel of the

‘foul witch Sycorax’

(the previous ‘ruler’ of the island who died before Prospero arrived, but leaving her son, Caliban, who, like Ariel, Prospero ‘keep[s] in service’) and her treatment of him – trapping him

‘into a cloven pine; within which rift

Imprison’d thou didst painfully remain

A dozen years […]

thy groans

Did make wolves howl and penetrate the breasts

Of ever angry bears: it was a torment

To lay upon the damn’d’


‘I arrived and heard thee, […]

and let thee out.’

This speech dominates this interaction between the pair. Ariel’s lines are clipped (often less than five words) and deferential (consistently referring to Prospero as ‘sir’) – whereas Prospero’s are full of visceral imagery of pain and torment that can be interpreted as either a statement of his moral superiority and benevolence (imposing justice after Sycorax’s wrongs, and thus making him the rightful inheritor of the island) or as simplythe_tempest_production_photos_2016_press_call_2016_photo_by_topher_mcgrillis_c_rsc_207566.tmb-img-820.jpg an exercise in rhetoric – justifying his unsound claim to Ariel’s loyalty (is Prospero’s taking him into his ‘service’ in some sense equivalent to Sycorax’s ‘imprison[ing]’ a ‘spirit’ like Ariel into a ‘cloven pine’?). Doran employs special effects to explore this – hinting at the latter. For as Prospero delivers this speech, the spiral of fabric (that the figure of the man ‘drowned’ down) descends around Ariel – encircling him like the trunk of the ‘cloven pine’. And with each bitterly delivered descriptor Prospero gives of Ariel’s imprisonment, a new projection is cast across the stage, transfiguring it into a net of roots, and directly onto Ariel, appearing to transform him into wood. The effect is truly astonishing – and totally absorbing, especially with the accompanying audio of wood creaking (seeming to echo Ariel’s physically appearing to break under the force of Prospero’s magic) that sounds like bones cracking – or whips. Instead of undermining the power of the characters’ words, the special effects draw out their moral complexities and ambiguities – bringing them into sharper relief.

The wedding masque Prospero puts on for Miranda and Ferdinand later on is similarly astonishing – but to a slightly different end. For it demonstrates the potential for Prospero’s art to create joy and beauty, in celebration of potential growth and fertility (an inversion of the projections that grew around Ariel, seeming to turn him back ‘into a cloven pine’, crushing him right before our eyes). Previous productions have down-played the masque, using it as a meta-theatrical device (drawing to the audience’s attention that they are watching something that is not real) to highlight Prospero’s inadequacies: for example in Mendes’ production, where Alec McOwen’s kindly and eccentric Prospero conjured the masque on a tiny stage on stage (similar to the play within the play in Hamlet), with the actresses playing the goddesses Iris, Ceres, and Juno moving like wooden puppets – making him appear somewhat foolish, like a ‘conjuror who’d go down well at a children’s party’[3]. Doran does precisely the opposite. The goddesses of his masque are less easily dismissed as some ‘vanity’ of Prospero’s art – they appear as almost real, but perhaps not really gods as the glowing fibre-optic threads draped about their dresses are not enough to confirm them as otherworldly beings – they clash too much with the Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 15.43.27.pngdresses organic looking fabric and tudor silhouettes. Further the setting for the masque is totally immersive; indeed the feathers of the peacocks that

‘fly amain’

with the entrance of Ceres are stunningly projected across the entirety of the stage – as are David Hockney-esque images of

‘rich leas

Of wheat, rye, barley, vetches, oats and pease;

[…] turfy mountains, where live nibbling sheep,

And flat meads thatch’d with stover.’

But poking in from all sides on this fantastic scene are the charry-black bones of the boat that encloses the stage – stopping us from fully losing ourselves in the pageantry. The emotional complexity of the characters sitting on the edge of the stage, facing away from us – watching the masque with us (Prospero, Miranda and Ferdinand) is constantly present.

The ship’s skeleton serves as a symbolic reminder, not only of the wreck Prospero orchestrated in the opening scene (that causes Ferdinand to believe his father drowned), but also of the wreck that brought himself and Miranda to the island in the first place. This especially bears on how we interpret Miranda and Prospero’s relationship. The masque, with its semantic field of chastity and control –

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207292-tmb-gal-670‘this man and maid,

Whose vows are, that no bed-right shall be paid

Till Hymen’s torch be lighted’

– might be interpreted as indicative of Prospero’s authoritarianism, or of his viewing Miranda as merely a piece of his grand plan to secure revenge on his brother (or to teach him the error of his ways). These interpretations, on the surface, might seem to be suggested in this production; every Prospero halts the masque, claiming that he has suddenly remembered that he must stop

‘that foul conspiracy

Of the beast Caliban and his confederates

Against my life’,

(Caliban’s ‘confederates’ being the drunken butler Stephano, and the – also drunk – Fool, Trinculo – together they stage a rebellion against Prospero). But this line is delivered by Beale as he leaps forwards to halt the kiss Miranda and Ferdinand are about to share – which seemingly confirms his valuing Miranda only in the light of his personal machinations (heirs produced by Miranda must be legitimate beyond question: preferably born when the marriage has been recognised by more than just those watching the masque!). However things aren’t quite as clear cut as this: Beale’s Prospero is more complex, and human. Central to this is his love for his daughter. As he watches the masque Prospero cradles Miranda, hugging her with a true emotional attachment (which she reciprocates). Throughout the play Beale’s Prospero reinforces the sense of his affection for Miranda, with repeated moments of physical tenderness that are intensely human: she is not an object, rather he values her emotionally.

This is made apparent from the very first interaction between them that we witness. Miranda sees the tempest Prospero conjures, and feels for the plight of those on board (symbolically intensified by her wet hair and lurching gait; she herself looks like she could have been recently shipwrecked) – believing them to be drowned – begging her father to stop what he’s doing:the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207130-tmb-gal-670

‘If by your art, my dearest father, you have

Put the wild waters in this roar, allay them.

[…] O, I have suffered

With those that I saw suffer.’

Prospero’s following verbal responses are full of pleas for ‘obedience’, and he appears to try to silence Miranda by repeatedly asking that she listen (‘dost thou attend me?’, ‘thou dost not’); further his decision to reveal to Miranda

‘How thou camest here’

might be seen as a means of displacing her concern – or even disregarding it. However, Beale’s Prospero defies such an interpretation. His reaction to Miranda’s horror and suffering ‘with those that I saw suffer’ is to clutch at his heart – as if he feels a real physical pain, promthe-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207192-tmb-gal-670pted by that which he has caused in her. Just as he clearly cares about her emotional state, he also appears to value her perspective (although he may not actually act on her advice, he respects her point of view – he is not simply dismissive of it) – and enjoys her inquisitiveness, despite the fact that her questions interrupt him. But perhaps most importantly he seems to need Miranda to sustain him emotionally. As he tells her of his mental anguish when adrift at sea, he kneels to her, clasping her hands, gazing up into her face – suppliant-like – and tells her, with deep tenderness

‘Thou wast that did preserve me. Thou didst smile.

emphasised by Beale’s particular stress on the second clause, as she responds (visibly moved by his affection) with exactly that – a smile. Their relationship seems a close one of respect and mutual emotional support. Hence his telling her the longwinded tale of ‘how thou camest here’ comes across as his making amends to her – giving her an explanation he owes her, as opposed to an attempt to distract her from her ethical concerns to those of personal origin. Further the repeated ‘dost thou attend me?’ (which might also come across as Prospero taking the moral high ground as much at silencing her) here appears symptomatic of anxiety on Prospero’s part.

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207141-tmb-gal-670For Beale’s Prospero is vulnerable; less of a self-convinced patriarch, he seems self-conscious and self-doubting. This is reflected in his simple clothing: he wears loose-fitting cheesecloth top and trousers – no grand magician, despite the huge power we know he wields. His gait is nervous: he rarely stays still, and agitatedly grinds his hands into his pockets. Several possible explanations for his being in such a state are suggested to us. But first and foremost are his feelings towards his past: for he cannot seem to be able to understand where the aggressive ambition of his brother came from (he thought he knew his brother well) and further how he could act upon this ambition as he did – attempting not only to unseat his Prospero, but to kill him and his daughter. This is made clear when Prospero is telling Miranda ‘how thou camest here’. Beale delivers a sharp mix of confused rage, hurt, and worry as he tries to verbally reconcile how, in his brother

‘Awaked an evil nature and my trust,

Like a good parent, did beget of him

A falsehood in its contrary as great

As my trust was.’

However, because Beale’s Prospero is less than self-assured there is scope allowed for us to understand why his brother may have acted as he did. Prospero is flawed – and even he seems aware of this, especially when it comes to his choice, when still in Milan, to

‘the government [the duties of the Duke of Milan] cast upon my brother’

whilst he allowed himself to become

‘rapt in secret studies’.

All of this is symbolically bound together in the appearance of his magic staff – which looks like a piece of driftwood; suggestive of fragility and imperfection, emphasising Prospero’s humanity as opposed to someone who is pushing the bounds of human understanding with his ‘art’.

the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207132-tmb-gal-670Moreover this drift-wood staff also associates Prospero’s ‘art’ with the shell of the wrecked ship that encloses the stage (and all of his conjurings) – and thereby the mental tempest caused by his and Miranda’s shipwrecking. The ship’s ribs seem reminiscent of a whale’s (indeed the production’s use of special effects was greatly ‘inspired’[4] by Intel’s Leviathan[5], a CGI whale projected onto a screen that then literally swims out of it) calling to mind the many ‘monster[s] of the deep’[6] that feature in the Bible – particularly at times of human suffering, for example in Job. In his misery (a diligently pious man, Job’s faith is tested by God who gives Satan ‘power’[7] over ‘all that he hath’[8] – ‘only upon himself put not forth thine hand’[9]), having lost his family, home, wealth, and suffering numerous other hardships besides, Job protests, asking ‘Am I a sea, or a whale, that thou settest a watch over me?’[10], drawing on the image of the universe as chaotic waters (as in Genesis 1: ‘darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.’[11]) that God imposes order upon. In Job, it might be argued that his grief, his utter misery and despair at the apparent futility of life (‘my soul chooseth strangling, and death rather than my life’[12]), is of a degree that is as desperately chaotic as ‘a sea, or a whale’, or ‘the deep’ God must restrain to keep order in the universe: Beale’s Prospero channels something of this energy, in his anxiety, self-doubt – but most importantly, in his sudden rages, that seem borne of a chaotic, tempestuous mind, that has suffered and needs to right his feelings of being wronged. Like Job finds himself incapable of ‘refrain[ing his] mouth’[13] from ‘speak[ing] in the anguish of [his] spirit’[14], this Prospero in some sense must attempt to orchestrate his own poetic justice – to reinstate order in a world that he may find, ultimately, to be fathomless.

This is, perhaps, the central conflict of Beale’s Prospero, and potentially what gives him such a strong air of ambivalence – because the means of his remedying sense of injustice (his elaborate plot, starting with the tempest bringing his ‘enemies’ under his influence, and ending with his revealing himself to his brother – and outdoing him in his marrying Miranda off to the King, Alonso’s son, Ferdinand) come with the potential price of harming the very thing that ‘wast that did preserve [him]’: Miranda’s happiness – her ‘smile’. Just before the masque, Ferdinand (Daniel Easton’s is a combination of cavalier and naive teenage romantic) claims,

‘The white cold virgin snow upon my heart

Abates the ardour of my liver.’

This is addressed to Prospero – who grimaces bitterly in response. Little does Ferdinand know that Prospero was watching when he told Miranda

‘Full many a lady

I have eyed with best regard and many a time

The harmony of their tongues hath into bondage

Brought my too diligent ear’,

(the vivid sensory and sensual imagery, a stark contrast to the supposed ‘white cold virgin snow’) continuing to explain that she is unlike all the rest. Indeed during the actual solemnising of his and Miranda’s nuptials during the masque he doesn’t look at her – instead he gawps at the glorious sights about him (including the goddesses; the first time Screen Shot 2017-01-31 at 23.59.23.pnghe addressed Miranda he referred to her as a ‘goddess’). Whilst Miranda is set on marrying Ferdinand, the possibility that he may not live up to her expectations seems to bother Prospero (the masque itself seems to be a sort of utopian vision of the world he wishes he could give to her) – but not enough to change his plans. Maybe he thinks that, in time, he will be able to correct Ferdinand? His teacherly manner towards him – setting the lovers-test of piling up a ‘some thousand’ logs (which this Ferdinand does with much comic huffing and puffing – and help from Miranda, who is much more able than he) – might suggest as much. However, whether we think Prospero will manage this, or that his judgement is in any way sound is very much open to question.

This is where the extraordinary special effects really come into their own – and prove themselves to be a means of enhancing our view of the characters on stage, as opposed to ‘upstaging the actors’[15], as some have suggested. When Prospero halts the masque to direct his attentions to stopping the ‘foul conspiracy of […] Caliban and his confederates’ he chooses to set a trap for them.

‘the trumpery in my house, go bring it hither’,

hanging the garments out on a line – to hook the greedy eyes of (the hilarious Tony Jayawardena and Simon Trinder) Stephano and Trinculo (Caliban, it transpires, is not interested in this gorgeous apparel; he is, instead, far more focussed on the task in hand – attempting to overthrow Prospero). Then, as if to teach them an object-lesson about the evils of greed, vanity, and ambition, frightening them as punishment – sending Ariel’s Screen Shot 2017-02-01 at 00.00.40.pngband of spirits in the form of dogs to hunt them. Rendered with the special effects, the result is truly terrifying. The faces of three dogs (like Cerberus, the three-headed dog of the underworld owned by Hades), glowing a shockingly bright red (that is so bright it almost makes our eyes burn – as if Prospero is somehow indirectly, even inadvertently, punishing us), growling and barking through gaping jaws, are projected onto the back of the stage – whilst, in the foreground, spirits (clad in white morphsuits) holding white discs onto which more dog faces are projected. They chase the ‘confederates’ about the stage – who shriek and scream as Prospero condones their (and ours, as we blink at the red light and wince at the harsh too-loud sounds of the dogs) suffering:

‘Let them be hunted soundly.’

The sheer magnitude of this (enabled by the special effects) doesn’t just emphasise Prospero’s moral culpability for causing such suffering (even if it is to teach a lesson) but it also suggests that he is less capable of comprehending the outcomes of his actions than we might have supposed at the play’s beginning, when we saw him watching his conjured tempest. This punishment seems excessive – and what’s more, in its extremity, disconcertingly uncontrolled. Even wilfully so.

This sense of Prospero’s being less than in control comes to a head in the closing reconciliation scene. Before this he had Ariel enchant Alonso, his brother Stephano and their attendants, including Gonzalo (whom Prospero considers ‘A noble Neapolitan […] out of his charity’) – luring them with a banquet (mirroring the trap set for Caliban and his ‘confederates’) and then frightening them in the form of a harpy (another live CGI avatar) tempest-gramafilm-3048-e1480372282729– informing them that they are to be punished for the wrong they did to Prospero and then setting three anonymous spirit-swordsmen to fight with Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio (whom Sebastian tried to tempt into killing Alonso). This is all to teach them a lesson – to achieve his poetic justice. He sets the scene for this – placing himself in the centre of the circle of fire (rendered via projection) that he draws on the ground with his staff,  as he simultaneously draws the enchanted Alonso, Sebastian, and Antonio (whose clothes are tattered and bloodied) about its circumference; Gonzalo, who is still neatly dressed, is also drawn in. Prospero’s intel-the-tempest-6moment has come. Before he breaks the spell he goes up to each and professes to forgive them; he then costumes himself in a military jacket (like those worn by the King and the rest of his party) and breaks the spell. He stands, awaiting their reactions, happily holding his arms out – as if to say ‘Tah-Dah!’ Standing as he is in the middle of the circle he seems hunted – even a little foolish. No one reacts – and then, when they do, it’s not to tell Prospero that they repent. It seems that Prospero has grossly misjudged his audience. Even Gonzalo, whom Prospero thought so ‘noble’ and ‘charitable’ receives him with a guarded look: brilliantly delivered by Joseph Mydell – who balances a veneer of benignity with hawkish self-interest. Stephano barely speaks; he barely moves – remaining icily still as his brother embraces him. The only one of these men who truly appears to believe Prospero’s claims is Alonso, who is himself on the brink of madness because of what he has suffered at the hands of Prospero (Alonso also believes his son to be dead). As Alonso embraces Prospero it seems that the latter might be just as mad as the former.

Such a complex Prospero somewhat overshadows his reticent Ariel and the kindly but simple Caliban; although Joe Dixon’s Caliban is strangely complex in his simplicity insofar as he exemplifies an alien system of logic, challenging us to relate to him. A real ‘mooncalf’ Caliban appears physically and mentally like the kindly ogre of a children’s fairytale: essentially benign, meaning well, and yet still capable of accepting something terrible as rape (Caliban attempted to rape Miranda) to be logically consistent with this. But it is also Prospero’s complexity that makes the task he sets us, as he closes the play, so difficult:the-tempest-production-photos_-2016_2016_photo-by-topher-mcgrillis-_c_-rsc_207334-tmb-gal-670

‘As you from crimes would pardon’d be,

Let your indulgence set me free.’

I’m not sure we can. What made this viewer pity this Prospero was that just as he labours to enact his plans, conjuring illusions to facilitate the events of the play, he himself is equally labouring under an illusion: the idea that the individuals upon which he attempts to impose his plans will react in the way he intends them to. The bones of the ship still encircle the stage; Prospero is still a mental wreck of a man – and maybe there is more wreckage to come. His brother seems unrepentant (or even enraged to an even colder hatred of his brother), and even Miranda surprises him, showing herself to be, perhaps, just as impulsive in love as Ferdinand – kissing one of the other crew members, full on the mouth, uttering:

‘O brave new world!’

Prospero might be free – but in a way that depends on your answer to the question: what do you think happened to them on the way back to Milan, by sea?


More information about the production can be found at: 

You can also watch the trailer (the production is to be broadcast live in cinemas) at:


by Emily Swettenham

30th January 2017



[1] RSC Royal Shakespeare Company. 2017. Sam Mendes 1993 Production. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

[2] The Research Team, Shakespeare’s Globe. 2013. Masques in The Tempest. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

[3] Taylor, P. 1993. ‘THEATRE / Rough magic: Paul Taylor reviews Alec McCowen and Simon Russell Beale in a new Tempest in Stratford’. The Independent. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2016].

[4] Ellis, S. for The Royal Shakespeare Company. 2017. ’O Brave New World: Sarah Ellis reveals how the RSC and Intel have merged art and technology to stage Shakespeare’s most magical play’. The Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Intel: The Tempest. [production program]. p.g.2.

[5] Vera T. 2015. Leviathan at Intel CES 2014 Keynote. . Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

[6] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:12, New International Version. Hodder & Stoughton Publishers: London, UK. 2011. p.g.514.

[7] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:12, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.262.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The Bible. Genesis 1:2, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.1.

[12] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:15, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.262.

[13] The Bible. The Book of Job 7:11, King James Version. Hendrickson Publishers: Peabody Massechusetts. 2011. p.g.262.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Cavendish, D. 2016. ‘The RSC’s Tempest: Lord of the Rings-style magic and the welcome return of Simon Russell Beale – review’. The telegraph. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 21st January 2017].

Review 3.

ImogenTICKETSCAN.jpgImogen or Shakespeare’s Cymbeline at The Globe Theatre

Directed by Matthew Dunster

Main Cast: Maddy Hill, Imogen; Ira Mandela Siobhan, Posthumus; Jonathan McGuinness, Cymbeline; Claire-Louise Cordwell, Queen; Joshua Lacey, Cloten; Matthew Needham, Giacomo; Leila Ayad, Pisania (Pisanio); William Grint, Aviragus (lost son of Cymbeline); Scott Karim, Guiderius (lost son of Cymbeline); Martin Marquez, Belarius.


So I Saw… Imogen

Matthew Dunster’s take on CymbelineImogen – subtitled ‘renamed and reclaimed’ – rethinks the emphasis of Shakespeare’s early-17th century play for a modern (but primarily Millenial) audience. His emphasis is on Imogen’s character and how she attempts to carve out her place in a gang-world that looks like something from a Vice documentary. For the Globe, Dunster’s approach is unflinchingly original and attempts to be mainstream; something that is exemplified by the fact that as I write this I am streaming Imogen’s grime-heavy playlist (available at: via Spotify:

do it for the gang, yeh, do it for the camp […] tracksuit and my sliders, yeh, I’m comfy…’ [1]

As I think of the opening scene of Dunster’s production these lines catch in my mind. The Globe’s 16th century facade is wrapped in a thick slatted plastic sheet, through which figures – clad in black Addidas tracksuits – creep, in formation; pack-like and menacing; making coded hand-gestures and movements. To heavy grime music the group pulses, and mime punches, and as a great metal table is wheeled onto the stage they get to work. imogen-shakespearesglobe-462xKeeping beat with the music they simulate drug preparation – choreographically cutting and scraping this ‘substance’ into jiffy bags. With this, we are immediately submerged in a tough world of gang-warfare on the streets of 2016 London; an interesting modernisation of Shakespeare’s original setting of Cymbeline – another harsh world although of ancient, Celtic Britain, ruled by King Cymbeline and occupied by the Romans. Dunster translates Shakespeare’s presentation of Ancient Britons who are rebelling against Julius Caesar’s imposition into a battle between rival drug-gangs – Cymbeline’s London gang (who wear black) versus the Italian ‘Romans’, headed by ‘Caesar’ (who wear white). It is in this mess that Imogen finds herself trapped.

In this regard another line from a song on the playlist stands out; it could have come from Imogen’s mouth upon her entrance – as it seems an apt expression of our initial impression of her plight:

arrived from my friends in a jiffy…’ [2]

When Imogen appears she is treated like the drugs prepared on the table to be traded. She is bundled onto the table and stripped down to her underwear – later, as she watches Posthumous being sent away she is literally traded along a line of gang-members, being forcibly held and passed from one to the other. For Imogen has contravened her father’s wishes by marrying Posthumous. In Shakespeare’s Cymbeline Posthumous is denied of Imogen because of his low birth (he is a soldier’s son who has been raised at court and taught its manners) and the need for her to produce a fully royal-blooded heir. In Dunster’s Imogen though, the issue with their marriage is not so much about blood and producing legitimate heirs: it’s more about Cymbeline’s maintaining control. Posthumous is presented as a cog in Cymbeline’s drug-gang-game (he is expendable?), whom he cannot afford to have attached to his daughter – he would rather that Imogen marry Cloten, the son of his Queen (Imogen’s stepmother).

Joshua Lacey’s Cloten is absolutely hilarious. His hair is gelled into spikes and bleached; he constantly seems pumped up (on cocaine or teenage testosterone?); unlike all of the other gang members he wears a red football tee and he walks with a gate so it seems that his main pivot point is his penis – giving weight to the gibe directed at him by his ‘Second Lord’:

you are a cock’,

in both senses of the word. Dunster doesn’t shy away from the sort-of teenage sexual humour that can be extracted from the text, and this makes it relatable: as Lacey puts it ‘I knew Clotens at school’ [3]. Yet this also calls to mind more serious issues outside of the imogen-shakespearesglobe-723play. Most particularly when Cloten attempts to court Imogen by waiting outside of her bedchamber to wake her with music. Playing the music (loud, electronic) and snorting coke off of his hand he struts around outside her room and says (accompanied with gross, lewd gestures),

tune: if you can penetrate her with your

fingering, so; we’ll try with tongue too’.

This frank presentation of gross sexualisation calls to mind the recent findings of the Women and Equalities Committee’s Inquiry into sexual violence in schools – that suggests there is a ‘normalisation’ of sexual harassment and violence in schools, particularly in the form of ‘lad culture’ [4]. As Lacey said, ‘I knew Clotens at school’.

Sex, between Imogen and Posthumous, is also mimed on stage – with the energy of someone making a ‘Grind on Me’ Vine [5]… This, along with the intimate club-style dancing they engage in creates a sense of their being in a highly physical and teenagely-intense relationship. However this makes the trick played on Imogen by Giacomo (he hides in a bag in her bedroom, having made a bet with Posthumous to test Imogen’s fidelity), where he uses the ‘evidence’ of his having knowledge of a mole under her breast imogen-shakespearesglobe-508to prove that he has slept with her (a lie) more believable – if Posthumous and Imogen didn’t have a good knowledge of one another physically then how could this be ‘evidence’ of her infidelity? It also goes some way to make Posthumous seem a little less naive, as playing their relationship as unconsummated means that his blindly agreeing with Giacomo’s claim ‘under her breast […] lies a mole’ makes him seem almost foolish – and not worth Imogen’s affections, in the same way that Cloten (with all his vanity and stupidity) isn’t. In the 18th century, Samuel Johnson famously complained that Cymbeline ‘has many just sentiments, some natural dialogues, and some pleasing scenes, but they are obtained at the expense of much incongruity’ [6], Dunster resolves this a little in his innovations.

However, he equally creates problems. For example by playing down the question of whether ‘blood matters’ the miraculous attraction of Imogen’s brothers to her (having met her when she is on the run – the princes were stolen by Belarius, a banished lord who raised them as his own and in Dunster’s production, on a marijuana plantation) seems a little more than can be explained by the effects of the weed… Dunster has also been criticised for his ‘criminal’ [7] cutting of the text, and re-assigning of lines. But I wonder if, for all of its ‘incongruities’, Cymbeline is perhaps one of the ripest of Shakespeare’s plays to be experimented with – to be ‘renamed and reclaimed’ as Dunster does with Imogen? The play contains elements of tragedy (Imogen’s treatment at the hands of Giacomo), traditional fairy-tale (Imogen’s drinking the sleeping draft given to her by Pisania which she obtained from the Queen – a sort of ‘evil stepmother’), history play (the ancient context), romance (the wager on Imogen’s fidelity) and comedy (the Agatha Christies’ Poirot-style multiple realisations in the closing scene – where Posthumous mistakenly strikes Imogen, who is disguised as a boy – seem intended to be farcical). This heady mix of forms seems to invite creative reimagining in a far more wild way than a more cohesive play might – for example Hamlet. A notion seemingly confirmed by John Tiffany’s choice to backtrack on his decision to open his 2015 production of the play (starring Benedict Cumberbatch) with the famous ‘to be or not to be’ speech, as it incited a heated critical row [8] (frustrating for audience members – like myself – who felt seeing his original intentions would have been interesting).

From the very outset Dunster’s production seems to acknowledge and draw upon this sense of the play’s openness to imaginative re-interpretation and choice of emphasis. The first spoken word is


but this is quickly followed by the stressed correction:

‘no Imogen’

playing on the discrepancy between the manuscript copies of the play’s spelling of Imogen’s name [9]. Dunster’s emphasis is clearly placed on Imogen’s story and on her capacity to overcome the male-dominated world she exists and is entrapped in. Just as he changes the name of the play from Cymbeline to Imogen’s he gives her some of the king’s lines – and some of Posthumous’. The effect is to create a female lead who is strong and achieves poetic justice with her own voice. I went to see the production with some of my friends, and Imogen’s

‘Kneel not to me:

The power that I have on you is to spare you;

The malice toward you to forgive you: live,

And deal with others better’

in the closing scene (directed at Giacomo – whose face is sandwiched between the floor and her foot) enthused us so much – particularly because we thought it unusual to see this sort of thing in Shakespeare – that we all raced to post it in our Facebook group-chat. Only then did we find that the line was originally Posthumous’.


Not knowing this when we left the theatre, we were on a high; the closing dance – where audience participation was encouraged (the groundlings became a sort of rave) – was just such great fun. But it was not just this that excited us; we left having seen some truly interesting and innovative theatre: William Grint’s beautiful signed speeches; Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ sung by Imogen’s as an anthem of despair that (despite the initial titter) somehow channeled both teenage romance and hardcore Aristotelian tragedy; an epic fight scene employing aerobatics I thought were not possible in the Globe – the list could go on.


More information about the production can be found at:


by Emily Swettenham 

16th October 2016.



[1] Yungen. 2016. I’m Comfy. [lyrics].

[2] Bonkaz. 2015. You Don’t Know. [lyrics].

[3] Lacey, J. 2016. Creating Modern London. . Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016]. Lacey, J. 2016. Creating Modern London. . Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[4] Women and Equalities Committee. 2016. Sexual Harassment and Violence in Schools: Third Report of Session 2016-17. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[5] VineTV. 2014. Sexy Grind on Me Vine Compilation – Hot Grind With Me Vines. . Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[7] Cavendish, D. 2016. ‘Imogen: EastEnders meets Shakespeare in Matthew Dunster’s Cymbeline criminal reworking’. The Telegraph. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[8] Grierson, J. 2015. ‘Not to be: Barbican U-turn over Hamlet soliloquy’. The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].

[9] Gisbert, N. 2015. ‘What’s in a Name? Innogen/Imogen in Shakespeare’s Cymbeline’. [online]. Available at: [Accessed: 16th October 2016].