Cymbeline, The Globe, 3 May 2012
This production was all about the cast’s rapport with the audience.
To some extent that bond had been forged long before the production actually arrived at the Globe. Many in the audience already had warm feelings towards the South Sudan Theatre Company, because they were aware of the full history of the project.
Theatre companies around the world had been asked to submit suggestions for productions to be included in Globe to Globe. As a result, festival director Tom Bird had been sent a 20-page letter from the world’s newest country, South Sudan, which he described as the “single most compelling and irresistible” proposal he had received. It had explained how they had thought about Shakespeare’s plays in the darkest moments of the civil war that had eventually given birth to the country in July 2011.
So when it came to the actual performance it was incredibly satisfying to see how well they had made Shakespeare’s Cymbeline work in Juba Arabic.
Like many of the productions in this festival, the performance began with the cast dancing on stage. But these actors were dancing with a palpable aura of joy at their achievement that went far beyond the standard cultural pride that informed many of the other companies.
This was all about them and their country literally and metaphorically arriving on a global stage. They dedicated the dance to South Sudan.
The story of Cymbeline was told in brief summary by various actors, with others crouched behind shouting approval and encouragement. The men wore wraps of animal skin print and colourful beads.
With the play properly underway, we got to know the characters. Cymbeline (Arkangelo Maku Fatrino), an old man with a clay pipe, seemed only notionally in charge of Britain, mostly ceding the initiative to his wife, the Queen (Esther Liberato Bagirasas) who in turn spent of a lot of the time looking mean, which was not surprising given her murderous plot against Imogen (Margret Kowarto), who had offended her by secretly marrying the now banished Posthumus (Francis Paulino Lugali).
The occasional burst of English was heard, such as when the Doctor expressed his concerns about the Queen’s request for a poison, succinctly and pithily summing up: “I do not like this woman”. He provided a sleeping draught instead, which Pisanio (Korino Justin) was supposed to give to Imogen.
Cloten’s (Dominic Gorgory Lohore) wooing of Imogen was accompanied by musicians with some great looking instruments, including a thumb piano and a bow harp.
The wager between Posthumus and Iachimo (Buturs Peter) about Imogen’s chastity was given a comic touch when the others witnessing the fateful deal shook their heads in foreboding.
Having gained Imogen’s trust after an initial rebuff, Iachimo popped out of the trap door to get a good look at her. The young woman slept on a bed that had been wheeled out of the tiring house. Iachimo was hissed and booed when he examined her closely, finding a mole on her breast, before stealing a bracelet from her wrist.
This bracelet enabled Iachimo to trick Posthumus into believing that his wife had been unfaithful. The young man’s denunciation of Imogen and womankind in general was a sensational performance.
Despite Posthumus’ extreme upset, it was plain that his anger at Imogen was still tempered by the love he felt for her. On the basis of this performance, it was quite easy to imagine the actor Francis turning his hand to the role of Hamlet.
This bravura display, culminating in Imogen’s bracelet being thrown to the ground, led into the interval.
At the start of the second half, Lucius arrived from Rome wearing elaborate headgear, which although obviously Sudanese, was reminiscent of a plumed Roman helmet.
Cymbeline quietly assented to his wife’s insistence that Britain pay no tribute to the Romans, muttering “Yes, yes my queen” in English to emphasise the comedy of the moment. However, Lucius gestured with his hand across his throat warning of the consequences of the decision.
Imogen disguised herself under a blue smock and a head wrap and set off for Wales to find Posthumus. There were “oohs” from the audience when Pisanio gave her what he thought was a flask of medicine, in reality the Doctor’s sleeping draught.
Belarius (Victor Lado Wani) explained how he had stolen the king’s sons Guiderius (Justin Mongu Andrea) and Arviragus (Malia Maluak), taking them with him to Wales after being banished. This quite long speech was surprisingly easy to listen to, despite the language barrier experienced by non-Juba Arabic speakers.
A gory foam head deposited on the stage demonstrated the fate of Cloten, who had pursued Imogen into Wales dressed as Posthumus, but had picked a fight with Guiderius. Imogen took the sleeping draught and, bewailing her assumed death, Belarius and his sons organised an elaborate funeral, placing Imogen next to the headless Cloten.
Imogen awoke from her drug-induced sleep and fainted on finding what looked like Posthumus’ decapitated body next to her.
There was a certain comic embarrassment about the Roman Lucius’ discovery of Imogen, which led into a great battle scene between Romans and Britons.
The warriors chanted and banged their spears against their shields and soon the British had chased the Romans off the stage.
Posthumus’ feelings of guilt led him to pose as a Roman and he was imprisoned. Ropes were extended from the two Globe pillars and tied round his wrists as he stood dejectedly centre stage.
He was visited by the spirits of his dead family who appeared in white either side of the stage up in the gentlemen’s rooms. Jupiter made an impressive entrance, arms held out to unfurl the full width of a large red cape before leaving Posthumus a scroll of prophesy.
The final scene’s revelations saw Imogen unmask Iachimo’s wrongdoing, easily proven by the fact he was wearing her ring, ignobly won from Posthumus. He knelt contritely at the edge of the stage with Posthumus close behind.
With Imogen reunited with both Posthumus and her lost brothers, Guiderus pardoned and Iachimo forgiven, peace was declared and all ended happily.
The closing dance was accompanied by a final caption that read “SOUTH SUDAN OYE” as the cast stomped in celebration, shaking hands with and high-fiving the groundlings.
Throughout this performance the cast had engaged with the audience in a compelling manner. This was something that seemed to come naturally to actors with a background in street theatre and storytelling who need to grip the attention of outdoor daytime audiences.
The long speech by Belarius in particular had proved compulsive listening. The actor Victor Lado Wani had spoken in short passages, punctuated by slight pauses. These momentary silences had formed a subliminal hook creating a sense of expectation about his next phrase.
This sophisticated oratory was much more compelling than the efforts of many UK trained actors.
The South Sudan Theatre Company responded well to the Globe environment. This was not surprising given that the first Globe had in its day been just one developmental step up from the traditional English street theatre of touring companies performing in market squares.
Seeing a contemporary street theatre company adjusting to the modern Globe has perhaps provided an insight into how that historical transition proceeded.