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BWW Review: IMOGEN, Shakespeare's Globe, 23 September 2016

The Globe is breaking bad. Cymbeline comes to us as Imogen - subtitled Renamed and Reclaimed, properly recognising that Imogen has far more to say than her royal father - but that's just the start of Matthew Dunster's bold, urban revamp. The king runs a coke empire. The exiles have a weed greenhouse. The court dresses in Adidas tracksuits, Cloten is a football hooligan, while Skepta and Sicario soundtrack strip lighting-illuminated tableaux, revealed by the parting of slaughterhouse plastic curtains.

Dark modern resonance, yet this production skews more to comedy. That's an understandable choice given that it is, well, something of an incomprehensible stoner piece, packed with discarded half-plots far more fully developed in other plays (fake poison, star-crossed lovers, lost children, cross-dressing, waking up beside a corpse: you'll fill up your Shakespeare bingo card quickly). When the actors get ahead of the farcical plotting, so we're laughing with them, it's thoroughly enjoyable - Caius Lucius, like his whole Roman plot, is literally left hanging. If they don't, as when Imogen pitifully asks of her lover's body "Where is your head?", it's met by unintentional giggles.

Melly Still's recent production placed the action in a dystopian Britain, drawing queasy Brexit parallels as the king resisted foreign interference. Dunster's tribes are competing gangs, eliding difference: Cymbeline's court, the outlaw's upbringing of his stolen sons and interventionist Rome are all pretty indistinguishable. The climactic battle, with its dizzying switches of alliance, is even more hazy than usual, and the resolution falls victim to the tonal lurches: would Imogen and her brothers really want to return to a world characterised by drugs and violence, or are we meant to embrace the general absurdity rather than applying any sort of logic?

Where it succeeds is on pure entertainment value. Emma Rice's season has both horrified and thrilled audiences, depending on whether you view the Globe as a period-perfect temple or a place where (often new) audiences can find their way into what were once unashamedly populist plays. Dunster's inclusive production had a markedly young and diverse crowd enraptured, demonstrably a play for today - and for everyone.

Not every choice pays off, with aerial work - from Matrix-esque fights to a floating greenhouse - distracting from rather than supporting the action, the poetry suffering in some ruthless edits, and a few movement choices feeling too self-conscious. The production doesn't need to try so hard to prove its rebellious, down with da kidz credentials.

Not when it's so full of visceral energy and cheeky comic runners, from wry colloquialisms and "Milford Haven" becoming a punchline to witty music cues and vivid characterisation. Joshua Lacey is a fabulously self-deluded, peroxide-blonde Cloten, whose waddling strut demonstrates that this posturing thug, perpetually spoiling for a fight, is most certainly overcompensating. Matthew Needham's Giacomo - making a memorable entrance via zip-up bag - is a charming, wily plotter, both unconscionable violator and reluctant admirer of the luminous Imogen.

Maddy Hill makes her a spirited and admirable force for good, but there's a slight disconnect between her ringing, crisply articulated speech (welcome though it is in a sometimes mumbling production) and street-smart persona. She's also caught between two worlds, allowed a few contemporary feminist moments, but defined by the men around her. Still, I wouldn't be surprised to see her mournful cover of "Get Lucky" pop up in John Lewis's next Christmas ad, starring a lovable agoraphobic squirrel.

There's good support from Claire-Louise Cordwell as the plotting Queen, Leila Ayad's conflicted Pisania, and Martin Marquez's principled Belarius, but the smartest innovation is casting appealing deaf actor William Grint as Arviragus. The signing between him, Marquez and Scott Karims's Guiderius beautifully conveys their familial bonds, and contributes to a touching moment in the convoluted reunion scene.

The biggest sufferer of this updating is Ira Mandela Siobhan's Posthumous, whose choices seem unforgivably daft when we're asked to accept them as relatable, 21st-century human behaviour, rather than mythic actions shrouded in poetry. None of his decisions, from the nasty bet onwards, ring true, and Mandela Siobhan's variable diction is an issue.

He's far more effective in the electrifying curtain call dance, an all-out, blood-pumping commitment that turns the groundlings into a jubilant mosh pit. The fact that the dance is the evening's highlight is probably more of an indictment of Cymbeline than the production, but perhaps demonstrates that this well-intentioned updating hasn't entirely succeeded.

Imogen is at Shakespeare's Globe until 16 October

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton

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