Class A drugs, gangs and grime are not what you expect from a play at The Globe.
This is Shakespeare, but not as you know it. For a start, director Matthew Dunster has renamed Cymbeline. His production is called Imogen instead, which makes sense: the play is all about Cymbeline’s daughter, who has twice as many lines. It’s such a great idea that it’s hard to believe no one has done it before.
This King Cymbeline isn’t of the royal variety; he’s a drug baron and his courtiers are a tracksuit-clad gang who throw shapes to a soundtrack of Skepta, grime’s man of the moment. It works brilliantly, all the more so because this urban underworld feels so out of place in this genteel theatre on London’s southbank. The culture clash is a reminder that the mean streets of London are only around the corner and were once roamed by Elizabethan gangs.
Imogen is played by Maddy Hill, best known as Nancy Carter in EastEnders. Walford must seem like a playground compared to the sinister antics of Shakespeare’s characters, but Hill is more than equal to the role. Her Imogen is a force of nature but also sweet and very funny.
The plot is as grisly as the best soap storylines. Imogen has married her childhood friend Posthumus against the wishes of her father and stepmother, who wanted her to wed her cocksure stepbrother Cloten. To punish her, Cymbeline banishes Posthumus – but not before the couple exchange a (suitably bling) ring and bracelet.
In exile, Posthumus bets a bloke called Giacomo that he cannot seduce Imogen and he’s right, but Giacomo steals the bracelet as proof that he has. Posthumus is so incensed by this apparent adultery that he asks Imogen to meet him in wild Wales, and instructs her right-hand woman to kill his wife.
Cymbeline is one of Shakespeare’s romances but it’s bloodier than most of the tragedies – and Dunster doesn’t spare us (or the clothes of the front row). As well as a pumping soundtrack and slick moves throughout, there’s some impressive flying, including a Matrix-style battle scene.
The superb cast is made up of classically trained and community actors, and you’d never know which was which. It was also nice to see William Grint play one of Imogen’s long-lost brothers. It shouldn’t need mentioning but it does because it’s so rare to see a deaf actor. His shaky signing when grief-stricken was more eloquent than any words.
Unlike most Shakespeare plays I’ve seen, this one ended with cheering and whistles as well as applause. As would have happened in the Bard’s day, the encore was a jolly jig but with an urban twist.