Year of Shakespeare: Sharing History: South Sudan Theatre Company’s Cymbeline at the GlobeTragedyYear of Shakespeare

  • Colette Gordon

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.


Sharing History: South Sudan Theatre Company’s Cymbeline at the Globe

By Colette Gordon, University of Cape Town

Pondering how much audiences really know about South Sudan, as she describes her experience of watching South Sudan Theatre Company’s Cymbeline, Erin Sullivan poses a key question: “[w]hat kind of political act do I think I’m committing as I sit in my seat in the theatre?”  Is it enough, as she puts it, for the audience to be “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”?  These seem to me essential questions and it’s exciting to see them raised by SSTC and by this review.

SSTC’s Cymbeline would, I suspect, struggle to show audiences what life is like in South Sudan, a crossroads of east-west and north-south migration billed as “the world’s newest nation”, but long defined by a bewildering ethnic and linguistic diversity, exceeding even that of vast North Sudan.  More importantly, perhaps, the company’s aim is not to show audiences life in the country. What seems to me fascinating about the work of SSTC at the festival is that, as Sullivan intuits, the Globe stage may be being used for a purpose that is strongly (and not uncontroversially) political.

Though Cymbeline appears to have catalyzed the formation a new theatre group (SSTC), the project was first given to co-director Derek Alfred’s Khartoum-based Kwoto Theatre Group, which since 1994 has followed a mission to “[a]dopt the Southern vernacular as the medium of the theatre, with the notion of uplifting and developing these vernaculars”, risky and remarkable work to have carried on before South Sudan’s independence.  Language is a highly political issue for the country, bound up not only with nation building (a rather limited way of conceiving the country’s current struggle), but with the painful history of the region.

The choice of English as South Sudan’s official language – which reads in terms of efforts to halt Islamicization and boost modernization – also signals the country’s desire to join the commonwealth (announced by the government in the same week that English was adopted as the language of education). It makes sense that this new “nation”, eager to distance itself from North Sudan, and ally itself with the West against Islamist power, should be celebrating Shakespeare – in any language.  But the question of language in Sudan also points, less flatteringly, to Britain’s role in the country’s crisis.  English language policy in the Southern Sudan instituted in 1928 was instrumental in marginalizing the area as part of a colonial strategy that exacerbated and exploited the division and inequality that have produced the crisis in this area.  Colonial authorities encouraged the separate development of North and South, with devastating effect, through language and education policy, as part of brutal divide and rule tactics, until it later became expedient to hand South Sudan to the North.  Under Anglo-Egyptian rule, while Islamicization in the North was actively encouraged, the colonial authorities, insisting that South Sudan was not ready for modernization, worked to preserve the “African way of life” in the area. English was established as the official lingua franca with support for six African languages (and general educational neglect), and the Arabic lingua franca discounted. The championing of Arabi Juba (the language that SSTC’s translation of Cymbeline aims to strengthen and legitimize) as an oral vernacular points, beyond the existence of a distinctive South Sudanese lingua franca, to widespread illiteracy across the country, the legacy of an oppressive colonial educational policy in South Sudan that might be likened to “Bantu education” in South Africa. As journalists are quick to report, the Sudanese government banned Shakespeare and books by other English writers.  But the British have also played their part in both literacy and the Arabic lingua franca in South Sudan.  Announcing SSTC’s visit to the Globe as fulfilling an “ambition to rise above” the country’s past”[1], the British press denies the extent to which this past is shared.  In those issues of language and nation formation that this production of Cymbeline highlights, South Sudan is far less “distant from the UK” … than audiences might choose to believe, although no one will stress the point.

SSTC’s Cymbeline it seems represents far more than simple “nation building” – or kowtowing to English power. Although one may question what the Globe to Globe festival’s multilingual project celebrates or achieves in staging 37 plays in 37 languages, it has provided an apt platform for a group of cultural workers from a region where language is a pressing and profound political issue to extend their cultural activism (not to show what life is like in South Sudan as part of a parade of representative nationality).  Kim Solga is right to suggest that this production needs to be “read against that grain, as both less utopic and more provocative”. What SSTC are staging – not just for audiences at the Globe, but for audiences at home – is complicated, certainly political, and not necessarily unproblematic.  As Sullivan suggests, London audiences might rightly wonder whether they know enough about the country’s politics to judge what they’re seeing – a worthwhile questioning.  But ultimately Cymbeline is part of a larger cultural performance that goes beyond this, a cultural hijacking that takes the stage for South Sudan.

In the light of all of this, it’s worth revisiting Solga’s acute reading of the celebrations.

Instead of standing apart from us to “stand for” their work (and for their country) in an ordinary bow, the performers asked us at the curtain to join them in that work by joining in its welcoming.  In Shakespeare’s own house, the SSTC turned the tables on the Bard, using his Cymbeline as but a prologue to their intensely performative, personal celebration – and to the work that lies ahead of them as artists and citizens of a nation in difficult transition. Most importantly, they sang and danced and cheered that work as all of ours – as not just a source of “global” pleasure, but also a site of global responsibility.

[1] Ros Wynne Jones, ‘Cymbeline: From war-ravaged South Sudan to the Globe Theatre’, The Independent, 02/05/12.

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Author: Colette Gordon

Colette Gordon is a lecturer at the University of Cape Town. She is completing a book-length study of theinteraction betweenearly modern credit culture and stage performance entitled Shakespeare’s Play of Credit with support from a Folger fellowship. Other projects include work on Shakespeare in Southern Africa and Shakespeare in Prison.