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Cymbeline (in Arabic)

Yesterday’s Globe theatre retelling of the Cymbeline story opened – or at least appeared to open – with the entire cast contributing their 2p-worth on the issue of what the story of Cymbeline actually was. And fair dos. A ‘late’ and abnormally tortuous Shakespearean number, Cymbeline seems not only to have been constructed out of the usual fragments of ancient British history and ‘borrowed’ chunks of Classical literature, but also of itinerant tropes from other Shakespeare plays! Romantic antics, warring dynasties, poison plots, nation-building myths, randy wagers, skulduggery in bedrooms, banishment, ill-gotten ‘proofs’ of things, treachery, jealousy, man-love, clever servants, witch-doctors, the ghosts of dead fathers, cross-dressing, transparent pseudonyms, divine intervention – you name it, Cymbeline’s got it. Oh, and bits of it are set in Wales.

If the play itself already feels like a multicultural parody (not to mention a parody of Shakespeare), then the venue was doing its best to rise to the occasion: a Sudanese theatre troupe performing – in the grey half-outdoors – an Arabic-language play about Italians and Celts to an audience of Sikhs and South Americans, grannies, backpackers, academics, hi-viz cyclists, American tourists and African embassy officials, to the tune of a flautist playing Bach under a nearby railway arch and the thunder of Chinooks overhead. A matchlessly “London” welcome for the South Sudan Theatre Company’s first international gig.

In and around the SSTC’s ebullient song and dance (lit.) – complete with weaponry, day-glo cowrie shells, bead necklaces, bush-hats, rubber sandals, and acres of leopardskin (from ‘sustainable’ leopards, you understand; I don’t think there are that many real ones in South Sudan) – the play was delivered in the lingua franca of the new South Sudanese state, Juba Arabic, augmented by a rough and irregularly synoptic paraphrase thrown up on the supertitles (“paratitles”? “supernopsis”?) and occasional grace-notes of English: “This woman, very crazy!” These oral/aural pull-quotes added much to the humour of the afternoon (see below), as well as encouraging, I found, the risk of little socio-cultural mondegreens, mishearings that conformed to what you thought might be going on on the stage.

At an obvious cost to most audients of the bulk of Shakespeare’s original poetry, the Juba adaptation offered some curious gains in terms of narrative clarity (if only more of his scenes could be boiled down to just a half-dozen sentences!). In fact, I for one would not have complained if, in what was already an act (so to speak) of substantial linguistic and cultural translation, the SSTC had trimmed a few extra minutes from the longer of the soliloquies. In this regard, also – the adaptation aspect – they could actually have pushed the boat out more: from the programme I thought that “a soldier in England army” was a bit of flavoursome patois. Ditto Postumus (spelled at least four different ways, by my count) and Innogen (an accepted alternative, it seems; but not the one they used on the screens). But no; they were just typos. An opportunity missed, perhaps.

Notwithstanding what already looks like a weird mish-mash of cultural references – culminating at the Python-esque paratitle, “Posthumus orders his servant Pisanio to kill Innogen at Milford Haven.” (Isn’t there a Butlins there?) – the jury, apparently, is still out on whether Cymbeline is a tragedy or a romance (and if this be a romance it’s surely the only one in which one character plans to rape another on the body of a third and then marry her!). So the SSTC decided, with commendable enthusiasm and daring, to grasp the obvious third option and play it as a comedy.

I dunno what liberties Joseph Abuk (translator/co-director) had to take with the text to achieve this, but, big scheming monologues aside, it was pretty funny. Sitting in the Juba-speaking section of the audience, I was in absolutely no doubt as to which bits were amusing and which lamentable. I also knew when to murmur in agreement, when to yelp in mock horror, and when to clap my hands to my forehead in prayer. (The German lady immediately in front of me did not seem to think this quite cricket.)

The canny reverse-scheming doctor (Francis Paulino Lugali, also playing Posthumus) got particularly big laughs, and well deserved. And if it did occasionally seem that there was more laughter than there ought to be (to wit: when the malign Cloten looks up the sleeping Imogen’s skirt, the black audience fell about the place; the white audience, not so much), that only constituted immediate evidence that a indigenous Sudanese version of this story would, had it existed, clearly have been told in a markedly different way.

It’s probably fair to conclude that Cymbeline isn’t, in any language, a first-timer’s Shakespeare play. But while it’s tempting to argue that you’re no less likely to follow the silly twists and turns of Shakespeare if you sit through it in Russian or Swahili, it does pose a problem with the long solo scenes: sneeze and you’ll miss a vital plot-point, but laborious soliloquies are left in, the paratitles not ticking over for minutes on end.

From which we learn… ? That Shakespeare wastes an astonishing proportion of his running time in grand explanatory fiddle-faddle (the unmasking of an obviously female “boy” – funnier back when there were only men on the stage, I grant you – takes an aeon and a half), to say nothing of his unconscionably operatic endings. Cymbeline’s closing shopping-list of revelations is unusually absurd (these two shepherds-slash-princes have birthmarks? So what?!), all the more so if it’s not even being played for laughs. (NB We also learn that it’s not worth taking Shakespeare too literally, in your home language or otherwise. I’m not a dermatologist or anything, but you have to ask how easily a man can spot a mole on a black breast in an unlit bedroom at midnight.)

Apart from the basic themes of internecine strife (and international war), a sneaky extra line about using ‘government position for your own benefit’, and a general question mark over the issue of rendering unto Caesar those brightly-coloured ostrich feathers which are Caesar’s, it was not entirely clear why South Sudan had landed this particular play for the Globe to Globe proceedings (I guess at some point in the epic inter-cultural preparations someone was going to be handed a hat with only King John left in it), so I won’t read too much into it. Except to say that as Cymbeline accepted his vassal status before Rome, and declared peace in our time, another massive Army helicopter thundered overhead.

A shorter version of this article was published on theartsdesk

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