Friday, 4 May 2012

Cymbeline of South Sudan

Of all the Globe to Globe ventures, the visit of the South Sudan Theatre Company seemed the most likely to be overwhelmed by its background story: theatre folk and poets coming together in a country less than a year old, still torn by strife when it should be building its new peace, to tackle an unfamiliar text. Not that Cymbeline is among the Bard’s most studied plays anywhere – I discovered a special fondness for it at university -  but the circumstances here seem especially fraught. For two decades no English books were permitted by the Sudanese government in the north, so having the text translated into Juba Arabic, a language subject to an oral rather than a written tradition and one formerly suppressed under British colonial rule, was a double victory. This excellent little film draws you in to the newly-formed company's preparations.

How was it, in practice? Very rough and ready: some tentative entrances, plenty of stand and deliver, actors talking over each other rather more often than was in the interests of lively drama. But there was no mistaking these Africans’ enthusiasm and instinct for storytelling, the way they slipped so easily between punctuating drumbeats into the Globe’s best house style of engaging the audience and resonantly addressing invisible gods (I hear the six Italians’ crazy version of Julius Caesar later on Wednesday needed miking: che disgrazia!) The tradition of strolling players was alive and well here; you could well imagine this team putting across the essence of the play vividly to assembled village people al fresco. We don’t find the raising of a sleeping maiden’s nightdress cause for a good laugh, but cultures can’t always be expected to agree.

How much does the story reflect South Sudan’s struggle for liberation, as has been claimed? Not a great deal: though peace and reconciliation must resonate in spite of very recent Sudanese evidence to the contrary, the conflict between Cymbeline of the woaded Britons and ancient Rome is, at least until the very late stages of the play, mere background for the wanderings and trials of the king’s daughter.

‘Heavenly Imogen’ I’ve always thought of as a kind of Alice cast adrift in a grotesque wonderland when separated from her beloved Posthumus. She fends off the advances of his scurvy friend Iachimo, who wrests love-tokens from her unknown by sneaking into her bedchamber concealed in a trunk (here he snakes out of a trap door). She wakes from the effects of a death-simulating potion alongside the headless body of her wicked stepmother’s silly son Cloten, killed by a young man under provocation who will turn out to be her brother, and takes the torso to be Posthumus. The lengthy reconciliation scene is full of what a friend of mine calls ‘I was that toothbrush’ moments.

All this was strongly evoked by the South Sudanese actors, with (I fancy) very few cuts and minimal help from the scene summaries in the LED paratitles. It was impossible not to warm to the indignation and passion of Margaret Kowarto’s Imogen (prone in the above photo) or the dignity of Francis Paulino Lugali’s Posthumus. But the festival’s ongoing problem, which can occasionally be a virtue, of not having the text translated back into the Shakespeare original to help the punters made me realize more than ever that the contrived situations of Cymbeline seem merely daft in themselves; it's the poetry they conjure up in the unlikeliest circumstances which gives them sense and wonder.

Here it’s not quite enough to claim that one vaguely feels the force of that poetry in another language without understanding it. The audiences for these shows are incredibly resilient and patient, but they have to be grateful for resourceful mime, jolly dances to clap along to and choice morsels dropped in (non-Shakespearean) English, in which the South Sudanese were as well versed as the Indian actors in the much slicker Twelfth Night. Which of course is far from the whole story, however well that story's told. Shakespeare the poet is largely absent unless you happen to speak the language; Shakespeare the dramatist usually emerges triumphant. Which is enough to keep me going, I hope, to more offerings in this extraordinary world festival.

Production images by Ellie Kurttz for Shakespeare's Globe


Susan Scheid said...

Unlike the Edu-mate, I'm not well-versed in Shakespeare, and, much as I have corralled her to go to contemporary music concerts, so did she (long ago) corral me into going to my first Shakespeare plays. The first were at Joe Papp's Public Theater, and some complained the actors' gestures were too broad. I, however, loved that—it helped me to catch on when I couldn't make out the words.

Somehow what you describe here reminds me of that: "Shakespeare the poet is largely absent unless you happen to speak the language; Shakespeare the dramatist usually emerges triumphant." Despite the difficulties posed by what may be "lost in translation," from what you have described here and on the ArtsDesk, this festival seems to come from an exuberant love of Shakespeare's plays all over the world. Shakespeare binding us all together, what a wonderful thing.

David said...

Eloquently put as ever, Sue. You remind me that we Londoners who don't speak the lingo of the visiting company take the place of the tourists who come to the Globe's usual seasons not necessarily grasping Shakespeare's words, but involved in the action. And though some have been cynical about the mixed audiences, I love being part of something so broad and polyglot.

Susan Scheid said...

And of course, what one hopes, is that one thing can lead to another, from the action to the poetry. (Oh, my, and this reminds me of one of the many unfinished things on my own list--to read all of Shakespeare's history plays.) I'm surprised anyone would be cynical about the mixed audiences. I'm with you about being part of "something so broad and polygot." I have this little picture of folks, arms in the air, waving, at the end of it all and chanting, "Shakespeare Rules!" Thanks for bringing us all these fine glimpses.

Speaking of unfinished business, over may way, you weren't supposed to be seeing a blank space at the beginning of the post--I've now learned I had a wrong setting, so my photo slideshow of the Conservatory Garden did not appear! Hopefully you can see it now.

Richi said...

Dear David,

am trying to get in touch - so sorry for using the comments section, as there doesn't appear to be an alternative.
I met you at the Prokofiev conference in May 2004.
I should explain more by email if you would like to reply


David Damant said...

The phrase (new to me) "I was that toothbrush" is really on the button. I saw Cymbeline at Cambridge with Margaret Drabble ( she had to choose between that and "The Duchess of Malfi" ) . One of the toothbrush remarks during the sort of sorting out at the end was from (I think) the priest: " O there was another thing I quite forgot" - revealing some vital part of the plot. O dear. Well there are as you say David many redeeming features

David said...

Richi - leave another message with an email address to contact you at, if you wouldn't mind. I won't publish it.

David - that 'priest' stuff is presumably the Soothsayer's belated interpretation, which can seem a pedantic step too far.

I wonder what we might have made of the hip-hop Othello, missing its Desdemona like the Julius Caesar missed its emperor. When the text completely ceases to be Shakespeare's, and you're only left with the husk of the story, can that still be the same play?

Susan Scheid said...

David: Could not resist a peek back here from Wales to see what's going on—and I see perhaps my enthusiastic "Shakespeare Rules!" may require some tempering. A hip-hop Othello missing its Desdemona may have been fun to watch, but perhaps not if what you are wanting is the Shakespeare play! Meanwhile, here in Wales, and about this I think my unbridled enthusiasm is surely warranted, first concert (St. Donats Art Centre in Llantwit Major—a lovely, lovely place), 6 young women, chosen for their musical prowess by Qigang Chen, and among the best, and some the best, in China, playing traditional Chinese instruments, solos and in ensemble, contemporary and traditional pieces. The last piece, by Qigang Chen, a teaser for the gorgeous pieces yet to come on Friday. All proceeded by a talk with Qigang Chen—Messiaen (he was OM’s last student) really did profoundly change his life. Three of the players, on pipa, erhu, and zheng, along with a Chinese opera and two western sopranos, will perform in Friday’s concert (Wales Millennium Centre’s Hoddinott Hall at Cardiff, BBC National Orchestra of Wales) on Qigang Chen’s piece Iris dévoilée, a piece I know and cannot wait to hear live. I wish I could spirit you over here to hear it, too! Failing that, I will report at some point on my return, though what I will be able to put in words can be but a pale reflection of what this has been, and is going to be, like.

David said...

How I wish I were there, Susan - and I've never been to Llantwit Major. You conjure it up so vividly.

In the meantime, the Globe to Globe experience just gets wackier. I wonder exactly what I missed in the Polish Macbeth, where among other novelties, I hear, a drag witch performs a blowjob on the thane. Genuinely shocking or vieux jeu? Opinion is divided

Anonymous said...

David Damant writes:
As Macbeth is the Shakespeare I know best I thought of going - but I saw from the trailing info that it was very
violent etc, and the blowjob incident does not surprise me. I recognise that Macbeth is a straightforward story [ by comparison Hamlet is not about the Prince of Denmark but about all ( young ?) men]. Even so the core of the matter is the personality and the change (?) in the personality of Macbeth as protagonist...[ Scholarship level question - is "this dead butcher and his fiendlike queen" a fair appraisal?] and having all that sex and violence on stage is not very relevant

John Graham said...

How nice to speak to you yesterday after so long. The Adam dining room from Bowood, carefully reconstructed after dismantling, is actually on the TOP FLOOR of the Lloyds Building, not half-way up, as I incorrectly said.
John Graham