Is Cymbeline a comedy, a tragedy, a romance? In this new version, adapted and directed by Matthew Dunster, it’s certainly no fairytale. As well as giving its harried heroine the title role – she does, after all, have by far the greatest number of lines in the play, and many more than her dad, the King – Dunster transposes the action from a fantastical Roman Britain to a gritty urban setting that is brutal, unlovely and decidedly 21st century.
Jon Bausor’s design wraps the Globe’s stage in a translucent plastic curtain. It’s redolent of hospital cubicles or body bags – clinical, slightly sinister, often cloaking acts of violence or drug abuse, the figures glimpsed through it rendered a nightmarish blur. The cast members are all dressed to kill – or at least, to stab and shoot-up – in Adidas streetwear. Jagged grime music blares and pulsates and, in a thrillingly vital opening sequence in which shards of Shakespeare’s text collide with Christopher Akrill’s acrobatic choreography, the staging stomps through the dysfunctional royal family’s troubled history. Little Princess Imogen (Maddy Hill) plays with Posthumus (Ira Mandela Siobhan), their friendship ripening into something more sensual as they become adults. We witness the kidnapping of her two brothers, Cymbeline’s sons. We see the posturing of the King (Jonathan McGuinness), his blinged-up new Queen, Imogen’s stepmother (Claire-Louise Cordwell) and her doltish gangster son, Cloten (Joshua Lacey). Cocaine is rhythmically chopped on a steel table, and parcelled up for sale by hard-faced, strutting youths.
It’s a pitiless environment drawn with razor wit, and a place particularly cruel to young women, Imogen passing through many pairs of groping and assessing hands as Akrill’s movement sends her spinning and toppling. Worse is to come as we’re thrust deeper into Shakespeare’s twisted story. Giacomo (Matthew Needham), here a lustrous-haired posh boy slumming it with the bros, sneaks into her bedroom to win his bet with Posthumus, comically secreted in a large rucksack. When he peers under her silk bedsheets with a coolly lecherous gaze, you can’t help thinking of revenge porn – of the awful humiliation that would be meted out to a modern Imogen on Facebook and Twitter.
Dunster’s inventiveness also sees the cave where a fatherly, gruff Belarius (Martin Marquez) lives with Imogen’s long-lost brothers turned into a hothouse full of hydroponic weed. And the climactic battle scenes employ some gripping aerialism, the combatants swooping skywards on wires, their aggression lent a balletic elegance. The shallow idiocy of gang warfare, with its warped codes of honour and respect, makes a neat parallel to the arbitrary absurdities of Shakespeare’s uneven plot.
It’s always engaging – but not everything here works. Dunster sacrifices clear verse-speaking to frenetic energy, and though some of the supporting performances are eye-catching – Leila Ayad’s feisty, self-preserving servant Pisania (a female take on Shakespeare’s Pisanio) is especially memorable – others need clearer definition. Hill’s presence is lightweight. She could be a stronger, more charismatic centre for the staging’s whirling, hectic activity. And while ribald humour always plays well in the Globe’s diffuse open-air space, the production rarely moves us much. Still, it’s arresting and vibrant, Imogen’s eventual eruption in furious rebellion well worth waiting for. And the production’s final moment is irresistibly touching, with the reunited Hill and Siobhan’s buff Posthumus clinging together, limbs twined around each other, like two lost children facing the scary concrete jungle of adulthood. Its dramatic heartbeat may be a touch erratic, but this is Shakespeare with fresh blood pounding through its veins.