This post is part of Year of Shakespeare, a project documenting the World Shakespeare Festival, the greatest celebration of Shakespeare the world has ever seen.
Cymbeline, The South Sudan Theatre Company, dir. Joseph Abuk and Derik Uya Alfred, 3 May 2012 at The Globe, London
By Erin Sullivan, Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham
It’s difficult, perhaps impossible, to talk about South Sudan Theatre Company’s production of Cymbeline for The Globe without talking about the story of how they got there. As representatives of the world’s newest nation, they have been the focus of considerable media attention, with their tale of nation-building through theatre and survival through art making headlines in several UK newspapers. ‘I used to lie in the bush under the stars reading Shakespeare’s plays, not thinking about the killing that would take place in the morning’, wrote the current South Sudanese Culture Minister in the company’s proposal to the Globe, an application that Festival Director Tom Bird understandably described as ‘compelling and irresistible’.
Primed by the news stories I had been reading, and by the short documentary films London-based Transformedia has been creating around SSTC’s journey with Cymbeline, I arrived to their closing performance with a sense of great expectation, of participating in a theatrical and artistic experience but also of bearing witness to an ongoing story of struggle. Judging by the crowd, which was close to a full house, I wasn’t the only one. In the café beforehand one woman told a friend that she had decided to come after reading about the company’s story in the paper, and as I took my seat inside the theatre two men discussed their views on the history of Sudan, where one of them had worked in the 70s. ‘Difficult territory’, he concluded. ‘Desperate’, the other responded.
Of course, such expectations and assumptions are always problematic – what do people like me really know about the Sudanese ‘situation’? What kind of political act do I think I’m committing as I sit in my seat in the theatre? Maybe it was enough that we were there, open to whatever experience the evening might bring, and eager to see in person the people we had been reading and thinking about as we tried to imagine what life in a country like South Sudan – distant from the UK in many ways – might be like.
The production opened with a burst of drumming, and a dozen actors, dancers, and musicians filled the stage. As they danced they took turns summarizing the plot of the play, which they offered, they said, as a tribute to the country of South Sudan. Giggles and applause from the audience at the complexity and implausibility of the plot began early, and returned frequently throughout the evening, with the company mining Shakespeare’s late romance for the silliness and comedy that it easily offers up. As Postumus (Francis Paulino Lugali) and Jackimo (Buturs Peter) worked through details of the ring wager, the other two actors on stage shook their heads vigorously, waiving their hands and mouthing ‘No!’ at a plan that seemed destined for disaster. Likewise, when Jackimo visited Innogen (Margret Kowarto) and tried, in vain, to convince her that Postumus had been unfaithful, Innogen furrowed her brow and rolled her eyes at his eventual admission that he was only joking. ‘Stupid!’ she shouted in English, raising laughter throughout the crowd.
As with many productions in the Globe to Globe Festival, these fragments of English surfaced frequently, and were always met with a laugh of recognition – ‘Nonsense!’, ‘Oh my love’, ‘Very beautiful’, ‘Don’t touch me’, ‘Not appropriate’, and the ubiquitous English mantra, ‘Oh my god’. Given that South Sudan’s official language is in fact English – a language they explicitly allied with Shakespeare when they announced this decision – a case could be made for doing the play entirely in English, but it was interesting as well to listen to the Juba Arabic (a primarily spoken language) and to see the reaction it generated. Two women sitting on either side of me laughed frequently at the Juba lines, with one telling me at the interval that one of the actors was from her village.
It was a memorable evening for the way in which actors and audience came together, openly and enthusiastically, to share in the experience of being at the Globe and working through one of Shakespeare’s more complicated plots. The tone always remained light – when Britain went to war with Rome, the Queen (Ester liberato Bagirasas) comically led the company out onstage for a playful, cocky war dance, again raising laughter and cheers from a responsive and supportive crowd. Aside from a guard clad in British khakis, no reference was made to the history of political division that has marked the Sudanese region, at least in the eyes of Western audiences. Rather, SSTC’s Cymbeline was a production in which the pressures of modern politics and the dangers of war seemed to be temporarily suspended. Being there, on the Globe stage, was perhaps political act enough, with the play itself simply that – a space for play. In this way, the papers tell us, history was made, and we were there, but where this story goes next is a question yet to be answered.
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To read more reviews of the performances and events that are a part of the World Shakespeare Festival, visit Year of Shakespeare.
Want to watch this production online? Click on the image below to watch it for free at THE SPACE:
Want to know more about the history of the production? Listen below to an hour-long podcast of a session hosted by the University of Warwick featuring Joseph Abuk (SSTC Co-Director), Derik Uya Alfred (SSTC Co-Director), and Yvette Hutchinson (Theatre Studies, University of Warwick):
Looking for something a bit shorter? Listen below to a five-minute interview with Derik Uya Alfred, recorded by the Globe Education Department: