LONDON (Reuters) - The moment the besieged British king in Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” defies a far stronger Roman empire to declare his people’s independence is filled with tension in any production.
For the South Sudanese troupe putting on the play one chilly spring night in London, that is also the moment where Elizabethan invention and modern African reality collide. Back home, they and their countrymen face the very real threat of war just a year after gaining independence from a powerful ruler.
“We had connotations that could be applicable to the situation in South Sudan,” South Sudanese playwright and director Joseph Abuk told Reuters.
Abuk translated Cymbeline into Juba Arabic and co-directed the play alongside Derik Uya Alfred.
“We wanted to pick a play that has a similar conflict that has raged in the country for a very long time,” Abuk said.
Since separating from Sudan last July, after signing a peace agreement which ended decades of civil war that claimed millions of lives, South Sudan has struggled to keep peace with Khartoum.
The two countries disagree over citizenship, border demarcation, and transit fees for South Sudan’s oil, which must travel through Sudan for export.
That provides the potent backdrop for Shakespeare’s tale of the rebellious British monarch who refuses to pay tribute to imperial Rome, sparking war. “Cymbeline” was put on this May in London as part of a cultural festival tied to the Olympics.
“We want to say that we have fought a war, we have suffered, we have reconciled, and it’s time for us now to build our new country and to be recognized as a country,” the 50-year-old Alfred told Reuters.
Despite the hope wrought by a peace agreement, tensions between Juba and Khartoum have escalated this year, threatening to tip the two sides back into full blown fighting.
Just hours after the company’s final performance at the Globe, South Sudan accused Sudan of launching an air strike on one of its oil regions, a development that threatened to derail a promised ceasefire.
Simply producing a script in Juba Arabic, South Sudan’s lingua franca and a language without a dictionary, was a tall order, Abuk said.
“It looked like writing a new play,” he said. “Relying on one’s own vocabulary rather than on the written text, it was certainly difficult to imagine what could be the alternative here, what could be the actual meaning here.”
Another, perhaps more basic challenge for the actors was the change in temperature. While Juba reaches springtime temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius, an unseasonable London chill had audience members sitting in the open-air theatre wrapped in coats, scarves, and blankets.
Actors ran around on stage barefoot, the women often wearing skirts and bra tops, never betraying even a shiver.
“It was a very big challenge, that weather,” Alfred said. “If you change the costume, if you put something under it you will be destroying the culture.
“We told them, ‘Don’t feel the cold. Just feel warm and send that warmth to the people in the auditorium and they will also feel that warmth.”
Alfred’s Kwoto Cultural Centre, launched in 1994, has been active in passing down South Sudanese culture to a generation in Khartoum displaced by war.
His projects rankled the Sudanese government of President Omar al-Bashir, which was then trying to instill Islamic and Arab identity throughout Sudan. The government accused Alfred of violating national culture.
“We said no, we are actually doing something which is ours,” Alfred said. “This is our right as people living in this country and we should practice it. We will invite all the Sudanese to come on board.”
Laced throughout Abuk’s script are cultural references to his home country, which provoked laughter and nods of recognition from the many South Sudanese in attendance on the final night of the play.
For instance, at one point a character uses the phrase “washa mukormash,” which refers literally to something that is unironed and rumpled, but is a Juba Arabic colloquialism for someone with an angry or upset face.
And though Abuk’s translation keeps the original Roman and English character names, the actors wore costumes like animal skins and brightly colored togas and beads.
The play opens with a shrill yell, is punctuated by drums and tambourines, and ends with an exuberant South Sudanese dance.
Alfred said one of the most satisfying aspects of coming to London was performing for the South Sudanese expatriate community. Several told him they had tired of being portrayed as a poverty-stricken country where insects feed on neglected, hungry children.
“They said, ‘Today you guys have made us very proud of ourselves, there are no more flies in our eyes,’” Alfred said. “This kind of expression will really give somebody courage that arts is a very powerful element.”
Gina Abbe, 54 and a nurse, was in the audience with her husband for the final performance. She noted the hopeful ending of the play, in which Cymbeline makes peace with Rome and forgives the shepherd who kidnapped his sons.
“There is the war and then everyone makes peace,” she said. “There is a little bit of forgiveness also at the end. I hope one day it’s going to be like that in South Sudan.”
Reporting By Yeganeh Torbati, editing by Paul Casciato