A Sudanese Theater Company Comes to the Globe Theater
My daughter was able to get “groundling” ( standing ) tickets for the play Cymbeline performed by the South Sudan Theater Troupe. This was one that she was hoping to be able to see. And boy was she pleased! The rhythms, the costumes, the music and the acting. All FANTASTIC !! The acting troupe from South Sudan were amazing in all their tribal regalia. Their voices beautifully filled the globe theater and the actors played to the audience, just as is called for in this particular space. It was a splendid evening in the cold damp London air. This acting troupe acted as if they had worked in this special Globe space all their acting career. They mastered the space and the play. This play Cymbeline was done with raw , natural and untidy energy; so unlike the way Shakespeare is performed by Western cultures. Like the Maori, the very root of this troupe’s ethnicity and culture brought a whole new dimension to Shakespeare’s plays. They played to a full house, which is wonderful in helping to bring the world together.
I applaud this particular troupe for its dedication and hard work given the current unsettled climate in their country. We all can read about the unrest and daily flow of refugees into South Sudan. This troupe is a real testimony to a people’s determination and continued zest for life.
Oh , how I wish I could have been a groundling along with my daughter to feel the rhythms and see the movements and hear the voices and music and watch the acting !
A Review from the Arts Desk :
Globe to Globe: Cymbeline, Shakespeare’s Globe
South Sudanese see the funny side of Shakespeare’s romantic tragedy
This retelling of the Cymbeline story opened – or at least appeared to open – with the entire cast contributing their tuppenceworth on the issue of what the story of Cymbeline actually was. And fair dos. A “late” and abnormally tortuous Shakespearean number, Cymbeline seems not only to have been constructed out of the usual fragments of ancient British history and “borrowed” chunks of Italian literature, but also from itinerant bits of other Shakespeare plays! Romantic antics, warring dynasties, poison plots, nation-building myths, randy wagers, skulduggery in bedrooms, banishment, ill-gotten “proofs” of things, treachery, jealousy, man-love, clever servants, witch-doctors, the ghosts of dead fathers, cross-dressing, transparent Italian pseudonyms, divine intervention – you name it, Cymbeline’s got it. Oh, and parts of it are set in Wales.
If the play itself already feels like a multicultural parody (not to mention a parody of Shakespeare), then the venue was doing its best to rise to the occasion: a Sudanese theatre troupe performing – in the grey half-outdoors – an Arabic-language play about Italians and Celts to an audience of Sikhs and South Americans, grannies, backpackers, academics, hi-viz cyclists, American tourists and African embassy officials, all to the tune of a flautist playing Bach under a nearby railway arch and the thunder of Chinooks overhead. A matchlessly “London” welcome for the South Sudan Theatre Company’s first international gig.
It’s not worth taking Shakespeare too literally, even in your own language
In and around the SSTC’s ebullient song and dance – complete with weaponry, day-glo cowrie shells, bead necklaces, bush-hats, rubber sandals, and acres of leopardskin – the play was delivered in the lingua franca of the nascent South Sudanese state, Juba Arabic, augmented by a rough and irregularly synoptic paraphrase thrown up on the supertitles and occasional grace-notes of English: “This woman, very crazy!” These oral/aural pull-quotes added much to the humour of the afternoon, as well as encouraging the risk of little socio-cultural mishearings that conformed to what you thought might be going on.
At an obvious cost, the Juba adaptation offered some curious gains in terms of narrative clarity. Notwithstanding what already looks like a weird mish-mash of cultural references – culminating at the Python-esque paratitle, “Posthumus orders his servant Pisanio to kill Innogen at Milford Haven” – the jury, apparently, is still out on whether Cymbeline is a tragedy or a romance (if the latter, surely the only one in which one character plans to rape another on the body of a third and then marry her!). So the SSTC decided, with commendable enthusiasm and daring, to grasp the obvious third option – and play it as a comedy.
Big scheming monologues aside, it was pretty funny. Sitting in the Juba-speaking section of the audience, I was in absolutely no doubt as to which bits were amusing and which lamentable. I also knew when to murmur in agreement, when to yelp in mock horror, and when to clap my hands to my forehead in prayer. The canny reverse-scheming doctor (Francis Paulino Lugali, also playing Posthumus) got particularly big laughs, and well deserved. And if it did occasionally seem that there was more laughter than there ought to be (to wit: when the malign Cloten looks up the sleeping Imogen’s skirt, the black audience fell about the place; the white audience, not so much), that only constituted evidence that a indigenous Sudanese version would, had it existed, have been told in a markedly different way.
Apart from the basic themes of internecine strife (and international war), a sneaky extra line about using “government position for your own benefit”, and a general question mark over the issue of rendering unto Caesar those brightly-coloured ostrich feathers which are Caesar’s, it was not entirely clear why South Sudan had landed this particular play for the Globe to Globe proceedings, so best not to read too much into it. Except to say that as Cymbeline accepted his vassal status before Rome, and proclaimed the great promise of peace in our time, another massive army helicopter thundered overhead.
Cymbeline: From war-ravaged South Sudan to the Globe Theatre
Born in the camps where displaced people fled a 40-year civil war that claimed almost two million lives, the SSTC is a potent symbol of a country’s new nationhood. Last July, South Sudan finally achieved independence from the north of Sudan, making it the youngest country to take part in the Globe to Globe festival.
“It is hard to describe how important this moment is for us,” says co-director Joseph Abuk, the man who took on the translation of the play from Shakespearean English to Juba Arabic, a language without a dictionary. “It is a moment when we celebrate our freedom.”
For more than two decades, it was impossible to read Shakespeare in South Sudan because the government in the north banned books written in English. Often the stories were passed on through word of mouth, but there were also contraband copies of Shakespeare plays in circulation.
“When we put the call out for Shakespeare productions from different countries, the proposal we got from SSTC was the single most compelling and irresistible,” says Tom Bird, director of Globe to Globe. “It was six months before independence, and was written by the man who would go on to become the country’s first minister for culture. He wrote that he used to lie in the Bush under the stars reading Shakespeare plays to avoid thinking about the killing that would happen the next day. No other proposal was like it.”
In the hands of the SSTC the play’s conflict between Ancient Britain and imperialist Rome takes on a new resonance as King Cymbeline’s refusal to pay tribute becomes South Sudan’s fight for freedom.
“When we read this man Shakespeare we think he was writing about us,” Abuk says. “We can see all our problems and stories are in the play.”
In a new country made up of many different tribal languages, SSTC chose Juba Arabic as a neutral lingua franca. It also appealed to Abuk and his colleagues to bring Shakespeare to England in a language that was at one time banned by the imperial British. “Juba Arabic grew up because the African people in the south were not allowed by the British to speak Arabic,” he explains.
Translating the text was a painful process Abuk says. “There were many lines that nearly defeated me.” The players have been rehearsing 3,500 miles from the South Bank, and it will be the first time they have flown in an aeroplane. “It will be very tough for our actors,” Abuk says. “They need to breathe the air of London, acclimatise to the cold weather and become less nervous.”
In many ways, Bird points out, the SSTC are close to the spirit of the Globe. “They are used to performing outside in daylight. Some of the companies coming from grand European theatres will have more of a shock.”
Almost a year on from independence, war rages on in the disputed territories along the border of Sudan and South Sudan, and the challenges of poverty and a deep lack of development are manifold. As a symbol of hope then, Cymbeline is timely, reminding the new nation of its ambition to rise above its past.
‘Cymbeline’, Globe Theatre, London SE1 (020 7401 9919) today & 3 May