The South Sudan Cymbeline
Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, 2 + 3 May 2012
Since seeing the South Sudan Theatre Company’s Cymbeline I’ve been thinking a lot about the expectations that gathered around this show, about how it was promoted and valued by the Globe and in the press, and about what audiences have been primed to want from it. What does a production like this do for a festival like Globe to Globe and its audiences? What do we do for it in turn?
Of all the shows at G2G, Cymbeline has perhaps been the most over-determined by its circumstances. I’d guess every spectator had heard some version of its story prior to arriving at the theatre; it is indeed extraordinary. The nation of South Sudan is less than one year old, and has only just begun to recover from the civil war that created it. Daily life, for many, is still a matter of survival. English is now the official language, but few can speak, read or write it. Books remain scarce. And yet: a company of artists from this country created this Cymbeline, performed it in South Sudan, and then brought it to London. Their production represents the first Shakespeare ever translated into Juba Arabic, the street language of their new nation.
Normally this kind of large-than-life origin story creates impossible-to-match expectations for a show, and sets everyone involved up for a fall; in this case, however, no fall came. Instead, something totally unexpected (to a cynical scholar like me, anyway) happened: an incredible good will seemed to vibrate through the yard and galleries of the Globe and onto the stage during both Cymbeline performances. The upturned faces I watched from my seats were with the actors every step of the way, willing them on; even at Wednesday intermission, as the drizzle loomed, the crowds in the yard didn’t thin.
The SSTC’s brave artists met this good will head-on, and with fierce passion and enormous energy they channeled it, at the top of the show, into a call-and-response telling of the story to come, presented alongside joyous dancing as “an offering to South Sudan.” This notion of performance as offering – as a gift given first to the absent and unfinished nation, and only then shared amongst the spectators in the global capital – framed the work ahead, and opened, for me, the stale corners of this messy play to fresh and compassionate readings. Dominic Gorgory’s Cloten was no “oaf” but a man in search of respect for the fight still in him, desperate to claim his identity but surrounded by those who would dismiss him. Victor Lado’s Belarius stole the second half as he entreated his sons – earnestly, desperately, hopefully – to help him protect the country they had built together. Margaret Kowarto’s Imogen, full of fire, would not be tricked nor ruined.
But nothing beat the curtain call. At the Wednesday afternoon performance the actors bowed briefly, barely long enough for applause, and then began again to jam, to sing, to dance. Amidst the joyous chaos cast members bent down to shake hands with groundlings. They handed out noisemakers, invited spectators to join in, and pulled friends on stage. Actors hugged each other while more boisterous dancing broke out on the lip of the thrust; the crowds remaining (and that was most of us) clapped, cheered, and grooved in time. The show had run long, but few seemed in a hurry to leave.
This improvised celebration could easily be read, like the haka performed in the yard following the Aotearoa Troilus and Cressida, as an example of the profound links between and across cultural communities forged by Globe to Globe. But it can – I’d say it should – also be read against that grain, as both less utopic and more provocative. The impromptu SSTC “pit party” was without question a perfect ending to what one man seated near me called a “really special” performance, but it also hummed with the subtle resistance staged by the company’s earlier call-and-response “offering” to their nation (rather than to their hosts). Instead of standing apart from us to “stand for” their work (and for their country) in an ordinary bow, the performers asked us at the curtain to join them in that work by joining in its welcoming. In Shakespeare’s own house, the SSTC turned the tables on the Bard, using his Cymbeline as but a prologue to their intensely performative, personal celebration – and to the work that lies ahead of them as artists and citizens of a nation in difficult transition. Most importantly, they sang and danced and cheered that work as all of ours – as not just a source of “global” pleasure, but also a site of global responsibility.
Associate Professor , Department of English
Queen Mary University of London
Image (C) Ellie Kurttz