Shakespeare with a South Sudanese sound

17 Feb 2012

Shakespeare with a South Sudanese sound

A dozen South Sudanese actors in their 20s and 30s sit on couches lining the walls of a hotel lounge in Juba, poring over scripts under the watchful gaze of veteran theatre directors Joseph Abuk and Derik Uya Alfred.

The dialogue they are reciting is drawn from one of William Shakespeare's lesser known plays, Cymbeline, and the 73-page text is written in Juba Arabic, the fruit of Mr. Abuk's labours in the closing weeks of 2011.

If all goes according to plan, these young thespians will make history in early May when they perform the Bard's work on the stage of London's landmark Globe Theatre, as part of a multi-lingual celebration of Britain's most famous playwright in the countdown to this year's Summer Olympics in London.

The "Globe to Globe" event will feature 37 international theatre companies presenting every one of Shakespeare's plays in languages ranging from Urdu to Swahili over a six-week period, starting on 21 April.

The festival will form part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad and bring together over 600 actors from around the world. The African continent will be represented by theatre companies hailing from South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Zimbabwe and the newest nation-state of them all, South Sudan.

"It means a lot to us as artists and as a country," said Mr. Alfred, a native of Western Bahr El-Ghazal State, who launched his career as a stage director and actor in the 1980s when he was a university student in Khartoum.
"It will be the first chance to be seen all over the world doing something creative," he added. "And we want to make a success of it."

The genesis of the project was a January 2011 press release issued by the Globe Theatre that publicized its plans to present a festival of Shakespeare plays in a variety of foreign languages as part of London's Olympic celebrations.

The announcement triggered what the Globe Theatre's festival director Tom Bird called "a massive influx of proposals" for his consideration.

"They came from some of the most prestigious theater groups in the world, like Moscow and Beijing," he said, "but also from surprising places like South Sudan."

Mr. Bird received a 20-page document from the then Government of Southern Sudan's Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sports proposing the production of a Shakespeare play in Juba Arabic, the ranking lingua franca of the region alongside English.

Mr. Bird and his colleague Dominic Dromgoole discussed the choice of play with Mr. Abuk, a South Sudanese playwright, director and actor, and Mr. Alfred, a co-founder of the Kwoto Cultural Centre, which began to stage productions in Khartoum in 1994.

They collectively settled on Cymbeline, a tale of love and conspiracy against the backdrop of a British king and his subjects fighting the legions of the Roman Empire.

Rehearsals began two weeks ago, said Mr. Alfred, and the first live production of Cymbeline by the recently formed South Sudan Theatre Company will take place in Juba on 27 March.

The cast and co-directors will travel a month later to England, where the first performance of the play at The Globe is scheduled for the afternoon of 2 May. A second performance will follow on the evening of 3 May.

Mr. Bird says there was no attempt to match a Shakespeare play with the modern-day political and security conditions prevailing in the home countries of participating theatre companies.

But Mr. Alfred does see some parallels between the negotiated end to Sudan's second civil war in 2005 and the decision by a triumphant King Cymbeline to pay tribute in the final act to the Roman emperor as a gesture of peace and reconciliation.

"It's like the fight between north and south," said the 50-year-old director. "It looks like the situation that people in South Sudan are living in – war, peace, a new country."

And a 400-year-old play will soon give that new country a showcase for the artistic talents of its sons and daughters.

Joseph Contreras