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].