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South Sudan troupe sees new country's struggle in Shakespeare

South Sudan Theatre Company performs 'Cymbeline' in Juba Arabic for the Globe to Globe festival in London to acclaim. The play resonates for them.

May 16, 2012|By Ari Bloomekatz, Los Angeles Times
  • Aviragus (Malai Maluak) prays over Innogen (Margaret Kowarto) in the South Sudan Theatre Company's well-received production of "Cymbeline."
Aviragus (Malai Maluak) prays over Innogen (Margaret Kowarto) in the South… (Ari Bloomekatz / Los Angeles…)

LONDON — Posthumus, the protagonist of Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," marched through the Herculean columns of the Globe theater, stopped abruptly at the front of the stage and looked up at an audience of hundreds — most of whom didn't speak a whisper of the language they were about to hear.

His voice boomed, and he raised his arms and curled his hands into fists. "All these people have come from the newest country in the world," shouted actor Francis Paulino Lugali in Juba Arabic, "and this country is South Sudan!"

And so with bells around their ankles, makeshift props and rushed rehearsals, the world's newest country made its mark on the world stage when a humble but talented troupe performed "Cymbeline" on one of theater's most hallowed grounds.

The show is part of a pre-Olympics festival called Globe to Globe running through early June. After it's all over, the open-air replica of Shakespeare's original theater on the banks of the River Thames will have hosted the playwright's 37 plays by groups from dozens of countries in a kaleidoscope of languages.

They include: "Richard II" in Palestinian Arabic, "Macbeth" in Polish, "The Merchant of Venice" in Hebrew, "Hamlet" in Lithuanian, "A Midsummer Night's Dream" in Korean and a hip-hop remix of "Othello" by the Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

For the South Sudan Theatre Company members, who earned standing ovations and four of five stars from the British newspaper the Guardian for their performance, the triumph is especially meaningful as their fledgling nation tries to emerge from violent conflicts that have consumed its recent past and threaten its future.

South Sudan formally separated from its northern neighbor in July, but the two countries are now sliding toward a ruinous war over their contested border and precious oil reserves and pipelines.

Many of those involved in producing "Cymbeline" earlier this month said the northern government has tried to portray the south as incapable of running its own country. They said the performance was a way — albeit a small one — to prove they could stand on their own two feet.

"As a new country, we want to develop a new culture," said Cirino Hiteng Ofuho, the South Sudanese minister of culture, youth and sports, who traveled to England to mingle with British officials and watch the play.

"This is really an introduction of a new nation, in Shakespeare," Hiteng Ofuho said.

"Cymbeline" is one of Shakespeare's lesser-known plays, a tragic comedy about a British king who refuses to pay a tribute to the Romans. A romantic thread filled with deception and loss runs throughout.

Dominic Gorgory Lohore, 26, who gave a commanding performance as the arrogant Cloten, compared the tribute to the oil now demanded by each country and the naive but pure romance to the spirit of an infant nation.

"Petrol is there … but human beings are unique. They can do anything with the petrol, but the heart is the very important thing," Gorgory Lohore said.

Last year the British — who for decades last century were responsible for effectively dividing Sudan into an Islamic north and Christian south — began working with a handful of theater producers in the region to see if they would participate in the festival.

The South Sudanese seized the opportunity to take their new country to an international event, even if it took the painstaking task of translating iambic pentameter into Juba Arabic, a mostly oral language of the marketplace. Government officials also saw the festival as a strong public relations move. And in July, the minister of wildlife conservation and tourism sent a letter to leaders of the Globe urging them to let South Sudan in.

"For southern Sudan to be given the opportunity to be part of the Globe Theatre festival, the first of its kind," wrote Gabriel Changson Chang, "will be a wreath of honor around the neck of our new born State."

Co-director Derik Uya Alfred said they decided to adapt the play to include aspects of the myriad cultures of South Sudan and present-day context because Shakespeare's story "symbolizes the war between north and south."

"We have like our own story, so we thought that the best thing to do was … set the whole thing into the South Sudan cultural context in terms of the costumes, how people look, but we keep the original names of the places, the original names of the characters," Alfred said.

But getting to London wasn't easy. Funding was hard to come by and fundraising only mildly successful. Nearly all of the actors have families and full-time jobs — one is a chef, another a journalist — and none really make enough money for a long trip to one of the most expensive cities in the world.

At times it was frustrating. When the actors showed up in London, they were given about 120 pounds each for all expenses — the equivalent of about $194, a meager amount for a group of young people eager to go dancing or have a nice meal.

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