Posthumus from Cymbeline at the Globe
Tony Calderbank blogs about South Sudan Theatre Company’s recent performance of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline in Juba Arabic at the Globe Theatre, how the world’s newest nation took the London stage by storm and shows that it is the poets and musicians who create the soul of a country.
The South Sudan Theatre Company performed Cymbeline at the Globe Theatre last week. Their Juba Arabic version, capturing the work of the great bard in feisty African idiom, delighted the audiences who attended the two performances.
The first, a matinee, drew over 400, mostly groundlings at five pounds a shot, gathered around the stage, chins resting on arms folded over the boards, looking up in awe at imposing Posthumus and delightful, tragic Innogen. The crowd took to them instantly, much to the relief of the South Sudanese Minister of Culture and his delegation, who had made the trip to support the troupe. The performance was wonderfully interactive with hisses and boos and laughter and cheers and handshakes and high fives. Raucous applause followed each scene.
The second was an evening show with over a thousand people in attendance; more formal an audience, the chair of the British Council among them, with perhaps a sharper critic’s eye. Nevertheless the spectators thrilled to see the vibrant performance, these beautiful black people, their energy, their charm, their wicked sense of humour, cleverly combining some solemn, formal classicism and adherence with touches of slapstick and irreverence; the warm glow of Africa on the South Bank amid the pigeons and the drizzle and the crisp London air.
Among the audience were members of the South Sudanese diaspora, the privileged few who could actually follow the play in its Juban mantle. ‘Oooooh’ and ‘eeeeeeh’ and ‘aaaaaah’ went the group of South Sudanese ladies come down from Birmingham, as they watched the tender exchange of love tokens, or Iachomo sneaking a damning peek up Innogen’s nightdress in the bedroom scene.
The story of Cymbeline, has relevance for the people of South Sudan: Rome, a powerful neighbour demanding tribute from Britain and threatening war when it is withheld, the young lovers whose feelings for one another are stronger than their loyalty to clan and country, the machinations of court politics and the ambition of the wicked Queen. Only when the poison stops can reconciliation take place.
Linguistically the play represents a landmark moment in the development of Juba Arabic. Hitherto forth regarded as a pigeon, a creole, an inferior variety of the great Semitic mother tongue, Joseph Abuk’s translation of the play is a literary achievement of enormous significance. Arabi Juba has proven itself capable of hosting a classic of English literature. Arabi Juba has come of age.
The adaptation included Bari funeral songs, the ceremonial ostrich feather headdress of the Lotuku kings atop Cymbeline’s head, Cornelius the physician transformed into kujur, the wise eccentric tribal shaman, and the scintillating Acholi dancing that followed the final scene to end the performance. But above all, everyone was wondering, where did poor ravaged South Sudan find actresses and actors of such calibre?
Despite all the development needs and the many millions of dollars pouring into health and food security, roads and dams and latrines, it is poets and musicians who create the soul of a country. These performances at the Globe have shown that a band of thespians from different linguistic and tribal backgrounds, with will and determination, can forge a nation’s identity.
All the world’s a stage, of course, and over the next few months the Globe stage will host players from around the world. How wonderful then that South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, should take her place so forcefully, and so enchant the theatre goers of London.