This series of reviews will look at ‘Globe to Globe’ productions, an extraordinary effort by London’s Globe Theatre to stage every Shakespeare play in a foreign language.
The comparisons between the world’s newest nation, South Sudan and Cymbeline are obvious and are played up to the max throughout the South Sudan Theatre Company's production at the Globe. The story at its heart is a romance; however there are no prizes for guessing who the company is rooting for in Shakespeare’s tale of a plucky Britain trying to break itself free from Roman tyranny. The performance is a truly special occasion as it is the first time the South Sudan Theatre Company has played internationally, and their Juba Arabic version of Shakespeare's play is indeed spectacular.
It’s been a rocky start for the new state as they have already had to defend their own borders against their northern neighbours and have even invaded Sudanese oil fields, but this is an optimistic and upbeat production which was devised a year before independence was declared. As well as having to build an entire country from scratch, South Sudan suffers from incredible poverty and poor education -- over 80 percent of the population cannot read, which shows how much of an achievement this performance was.
Juba Arabic is an interesting language in itself. Even though English is the official language of Sudan, many people speak Juba, a recent form of Arabic used by locals when the British banned Arabic. It is hardly written down at all, so to do justice to Shakespeare’s words and stay true to Juba is a creative challenge. Juba is also the language of reconciliation, a key theme of the play as it cuts across the numerous tribal groups and has united the very people that made this production happen.
The key plotline is handled well, but almost seems secondary to the context. Despite being incomprehensible to the vast majority of the audience, Margret Kowarto is a powerful Innogen and her slightly exaggerated emotional range makes us aware of her journey, from the delights of being married to having to go on the run. Iachimo (Buturs Peter) is interestingly characterised as a blundering prankster as opposed to the scheming devil’s advocate one would expect. The way he stumbles around Innogen’s bed chamber to steal her jewels stands out for the way he blunders in, and as the audience hisses and boos when he wins his prize gives you feel like you’re in a pantomime. This is a device throughout, possibly to add some universal comedy to proceedings; however it is delicate enough not to detract from the tragic elements.
The production features a drummer supporting every scene change with traditional music throughout and a lot of dancing. The limitations of the Globe mean not much is done with the lighting, but the traditional Sudanese costumes are vibrant and colourful.
The climactic battle is fantastically well choreographed as the Britons, strikingly dressed in zebra print battle the Roman legions who are clad in tiger print costume. The fighting is deliberately clumsy and slapstick, with weapons made of aluminium foil and exaggerated cries of pain. After the British win the day, King Cymbeline’s jubilant speech is accompanied by the national anthem and traditional dancing, as well as a call for reconciliation which unites the fighters, the divided brothers and all warring factions in the play. The symbolism and optimism are not lost on anyone.