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