‘Imogen’ is subtitled ‘William Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” renamed and reclaimed’, but it’s really that in name only. I mean that literally: by any modern measure, the title of the Bard’s late romance ‘Cymbeline’ is baffling, given the eponymous British king is a relatively peripheral character. The biggest part is his daughter, Imogen, and director Matthew Dunster’s decision to retitle the play does feel like the pointed righting of a historical wrong (sadly I doubt it’ll catch on).
The problem, though, is that for all the street-smart, vanity-free toughness the excellent Maddy Hill brings to the newly instated title role, there is no getting away from the fact that Imogen is kind of drippy and it really dates the play. Like a much less cool version of Rosalind from ‘As You Like It’, her entire storyline revolves around her doting over feckless exile Posthumus, who bets that his awful friend Giacomo won’t be able to seduce his virtuous bae. Giacomo cheerily fakes the evidence that he has, which leads massive tool Posthumus to order Imogen killed. Despite all this, almost all of Imogen’s dialogue involves going on about how much she loved Posthumus, who she eventually marries (of course). You may reasonably say that Dunster is constricted by the text, but it has to be said that Globe boss Emma Rice simply rewrote the play when she directed it for the RSC in 2006.
None of this matters too much: Dunster’s Brit gangsters-style production is stupendously good fun, making full use of Rice’s relaxation of rules about period-accurate productions to unleash a loud, grimy, grime-soundtracked story of double-crossing lowlifes that actually makes surprising sense of ‘Cymbeline’s convoluted plot. At times he lays it on a bit thick: it feels like the bombastic, wordless opening sequence tries a bit too hard to show that yo, Shakespeare can be cool too. And a late fight sequence in which the combatants are suspended from ropes isn’t really the showstopper it was obviously meant to be. But ‘Imogen’ is relentlessly gripping, and also responsible for one of the most genuinely thrilling moments I’ve even seen in the Globe: the young cast going absolutely nuts to Skepta’s ‘Shutdown’ during the curtain call, and the standing groundling audience going about as crazy as I’ve even seen a Shakespeare audience in return. It feels like a beautifully Globe moment.