When I was choosing which of the 37 Globe to Globe shows to see, Cymbeline, performed by the South Sudan Theatre Company, came high up on the list. The company’s story intrigued me: formed in the refugee camps made up of those fleeing from the conflict that gripped Sudan for forty years, it has made an extraordinary journey to produce this play and stage it at the Globe. Representing South Sudan, the world’s newest country, the production of Cymbeline seemed an apt choice, as the story of the ruler of a fledgling nation refusing to pay tribute to imperial overlords. Translated by co-director Joseph Abuk into Juba Arabic, a language without a dictionary, it was brought to England years after the language grew up as a consequence of the imperial English banning Arabic.
Of all the proposals received from different countries wanting to be part of Globe to Globe, SSTC’s was the most compelling, according to director Tom Bird. Written by the soon-to-be first minister for culture, the proposal described how he used to lie “under the stars reading Shakespeare to avoid thinking about the killing that would happen the next day”. A brave move in itself, since the government in the north had banned books written in English, and the only copies of Shakespeare plays available were contraband. For me, this is an example of the power and importance of literature, but also of the bravery and determination of those involved in the company, and I wanted to support them.
From the moment the company stepped out onto the Globe’s wooden stage, they brought warmth and colour to the cold May evening. In traditional dress, they must have been absolutely freezing, but they betrayed no sign of this. All the members of the company seemed thoroughly happy to be there, and their excitement pervaded the entire performance.
As luck would have it, I had seen a production of Cymbeline before and I know the play, but even if I hadn’t, the general gist of the story was conveyed very well in a straightforward performance. An unusual play – it’s hard to tell whether it’s supposed to be a romance, a tragedy, or a history play – it was played with a strongly comedic aspect, particularly by the villainous Iachimo (appropriately booed as he steals Imogen’s bracelet as ‘proof’ of her seduction) and the doctor, whose aside in English regarding the scheming queen (“I don’t like this woman”) had the entire audience in stitches. Judging by the members of the audience who understood Arabic (and there were several), there was plenty of humour in the script too, though I could only laugh at the English asides and visual aspects. At some points the play seemed overacted – in the scene in which Imogen wakes beside a decapitated body that she believes to be her lover Posthumus, she wails loudly in grief – but whether this was done intentionally for comedic effect or was simply a different cultural manifestation of grief, I couldn’t quite work out. The company seemed thoroughly at home on the stage, engaging with the audience as if they’d done it all their lives. There was great acting all round but particularly from Margaret Kowarto as Imogen, who really shone in her part and spoke directly to the audience.
The show began with two dances and ended in a jubilant celebration, with the actors wringing the hands of the groundlings at the front of the stage and the crowd cheering them on. I got the feeling that they could have gone on all night if they’d been able. This was a triumphant performance, full of hope, and I feel lucky that I was able to share in it.