FOR female actors looking for a meaty role, opportunities on Shakespeare’s stage have always been, at best, few and far between. It will come as no surprise to fans of the Bard that of his 981 characters in 37 plays, just 16% are women.
It’s an imbalance the Globe Theatre’s first female artistic director Emma Rice pledged to address when she took on the role at the beginning of the year.
Now, one of the outcomes of this promise is set to take centre stage. Imogen is Olivier Award-winning director Matthew Dunster’s reworked, retitled adaptation of Shakespeare’s romance Cymbeline.
Set in modern-day London, a world ruled by gangs and violence, the play positions King Cymbeline’s daughter as the central protagonist, providing a rare female perspective for Shakespeare’s audience.
Imogen – played by EastEnders’ Maddy Hill – has enraged her father by marrying against his will, prompting him to kick her new beau out of town.
Suffocated by her father’s aggression, poisoned by her stepmother, and with a reputation in tatters, Imogen begins a dangerous journey to clear her name with the man she loves.
Dunster says that in reworking Cymbeline he saw an opportunity to dispel some of the romanticism that has defined many previous adaptations.
“What I tried to do is strip away as much of the fairytale as possible, so that we’re left with a very dramatic, tense, masculine world that our heroine, Imogen, has to fight for a voice, and a place, within.”
Speaking with the Independent earlier this year, Rice said reworking Cymbeline was a natural step toward her aim of a 50:50 gender split on stage. Imogen, she pointed out, has three times as many lines as King Cymbeline in the original play.
Dunster’s adaptation is certainly not the first to bend gender roles in Cymbeline – the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production starring Gillian Bevan as a fearsome Queen Cymbeline is about to begin its second season at the Barbican Theatre – and Rice is hoping this is just the beginning.
“There’s no real reason why [King Lear’s] Gloucester can’t be a woman,” she says. “If anybody could bend gender, it’s Shakespeare.”
Imogen is playing at the Globe Theatre until 16 October.