“Cymbeline” by William Shakespeare

at Shakespeare’s Globe, Wednesday 2nd May 2012

At first, the LED screens the Globe has installed for the Globe to Globe season are mildly irritating; they give only scene synopses, are sometimes out of sync with the performance and don’t allow us to understand the words which are being spoken. After half an hour, however, they stop being annoying as we learn that the decision not to have a direct translation is a smart one; it allows us to concentrate on the performance in question. This works wonders for the South Sudan Theatre Company’s production of Cymbeline, which has such a focus on visual storytelling that superfluous words would detract from the action.

Firstly, let it be made clear that this is by no means whatsoever a polished production; it is extremely messy (not in a good way), and sequences such as the battle scene which could be spectacular are disappointingly under-rehearsed. To me, the arbitrary asides to the audience in English add to the incongruity and the tin-foil spears and swords are surely avoidable, adding nothing, and scenes are spoiled by a missed cue or muddled entrance.

Often, however, the spontaneity is welcome, and adds to the focus on telling this story simply and effectively. Seeing as this is one of Shakespeare’s lesser-known plots, the clear characterisations work well and the lack of experimentation is probably useful. We have no trouble decoding that this is a play about mistaken identity, mixed messages and, chiefly, loss.

Joseph Abuk & Derik Uya Alfred, the co-directors, give the play a tribal flavour exempt from any clear political statements (though it’s difficult not to be put in mind of South Sudan’s recent history in the reconciliatory ending). Use of comedy and slapstick is used sparingly and only when the scene requires it whilst speeches which hear characters recounting a story put emphasis wholly on their tale (Victor Lado Wani’s opening of Act Two with Bilarus’ story is particularly memorable).

Acting takes precedence, and we are treated to some marvellous performances. Dominic Gorgory Lahore’s Cloten is dynamic, reminiscent of Hotspur, and Francis Paulino Lugali’s Posthumus does well not to become a damp romantic lead. With Margret Kowato at the helm, however, this is clearly Imogen’s play. The extremes of her emotion are remarkably portrayed, and through her performance we seem to understand what she’s saying, even without the comfort of the English language.

Although the lack of polish is hard to forgive here, the passion of the production carries it through; it is by no means exceptional but manages to get to the emotional heart of the play with very little by way of design. Through wit and a glimmer in their eyes, these actors manage to charm us, and after the euphoric finale, it’s difficult not to fall in love with this company.

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