Cymbeline isn’t a very good play, but in this case, that probably doesn’t matter. The South Sudan Theatre Company’s production has been one of the grand stories of the Globe to Globe Festival:
“When we put the call out for Shakespeare productions from different countries, the proposal we got from SSTC was the single most compelling and irresistible,” says Tom Bird, director of Globe to Globe. “It was six months before independence, and was written by the man who would go on to become the country’s first minister for culture. He wrote that he used to lie in the Bush under the stars reading Shakespeare plays to avoid thinking about the killing that would happen the next day. No other proposal was like it.”
Cymbeline: From war-ravaged South Sudan to the Globe Theatre, Ros Wynne-Jones, The Independent
Now. A subplot of Cymbeline involves a small tribal struggle for independence against the Roman empire, circa 30 CE. The Romans demand tribute from their vassal king, the titular Cymbeline, who rules a hefty bit of Britain (proper historical Britain, not we’re-all-the-same-islands-basically,-right? “Great Britain”). Cymbeline and the queen refuse. The Romans attack the Britons, and the Britons win the battle. They declare themselves free from Roman rule while offering gracious, healing terms of peace to their former enemies. Presto, a new country and national identity are born.
The Globe has tried very hard to draw a parallel between this story and the recent creation of the state of South Sudan. You can see, for example, a strong similarity in the “tribute” demanded by the Romans and the protracted and deadly negotiations over oil between Sudan and South Sudan (South Sudan has the vast majority of oil resources between the two countries, but no pipeline to transport it – except through Sudan), which in the past two weeks have erupted into violence again in the disputed border town and huge oil-producing centre, Heglig.
Unfortunately, Cymbeline isn’t really a play about national identity, warfare, the birth of a nation, or anything like that. It’s a melodramatic, Pericles-style blender play. The main plot involves a princess marrying below her station for love, fleeing from her evil stepmother, dressing as a boy and encountering her long-lost brothers disguised as shepherds in the wilds of Wales. Along the way, she repels a man who tries to sleep with her to win a bet (he doesn’t, but tells everyone he has anyway), cuddles a headless body she believes to be her husband (it isn’t), drinks a potion she believes is medicine (it isn’t) which is actually poison the audience thinks will kill her (it doesn’t, she just flops over for a while). It has some very pretty poetry, and some very jolly cameos from the Roman gods, but it’s a court-and-country soap opera, not a treatise on nationhood.
It feels like a missed opportunity. I would have loved to see the South Sudanese Theatre Company work through, for example, Henry V – a real, deep, conflicted exploration of national identity forged in warfare.
The production itself was fine, and unlike the National Theatre of Greece’s production of Pericles, the somewhat messy plot was played straight. Margret Kowato was particularly good, subtly balancing Imogen’s roller-coaster emotional journey with her grounded sensibility. This was lucky, as she had to almost single-handedly carry the play’s silliest parts. Imogen’s scenes with Iachimo (Buturs Peter, who was outstanding) were just the right side of electric and creepy, and the funeral her brothers hold when she is presumed dead was genuinely moving. The long-lost royal sons Guiderius (Justin Mongu Andrea) and Aviragus (Malai Maluak) were energetic and likeable, particularly when accidentally beheading the villain (it’s a weird play).
It was very cold on Tuesday night, and I sympathised with the actors, who were wearing bright costumes well suited to the climate in Juba but less so to London. The traditional all-cast dance at curtain call turned into a genuinely spontaneous celebration of their new country, and was the best, and most theatrical, part of the night. Many of the actors seemed a bit nervous during the performance (although that might have just been the cold), but once the play was over there was nothing holding them back from a long, joyful and well-earned exultation.
I saw Globe to Globe’s Cymbeline at Shakespeare’s Globe on May 4, 2012.