A young woman lies on the ground, dressed as a boy to keep her safe in a time of war. Standing above her are soldiers in khaki uniforms and warriors wearing the beads of the Dinka and Nuer peoples, bark-cloth skirts made by the Bari tribe, and Lotuka battle helmets fashioned out of spent bullet cartridges. Their homeland has been ravaged by 50 years of civil war, and rape is commonly used as a weapon. The woman’s fate is uncertain; the tension unbearable. Then, one of the warriors recognizes her as his long-lost wife and lifts her in an embrace. The tension is broken, and the onlookers remember they are not watching events in battle-scarred South Sudan but a play at the Globe Theatre in London, the final scene in a production of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline.
This event, held at the Globe in 2012, was not an average theatrical performance. The actors, members of the South Sudan Theatre Company, were representing their country at its first international event after it had declared independence from Sudan, less than a year before. The company was set up by translator Joseph Abuk and director Derik Alfred with the ambition of presenting a play for the Globe to Globe festival, part of the 2012 Cultural Olympiad that accompanied the London Olympics. As well as being an international debut for the country, the play was something more—a kind of genesis story for the new nation and a way of working through the age-old rivalries that had threatened to destroy South Sudan before it found its feet.
The play, Cymbeline, isn’t exactly Hamlet or King Lear; it might have seemed disappointingly obscure to many companies. But it was full of resonance for the fledgling nation. The play tells the story of a Roman invasion of Britain prompted by the island’s refusal to pay tribute, and the parallel attempt of an Italian courtier, Iachimo, to corrupt the innocent love between two Britons, Imogen and Posthumus. Both the return to the Roman fold. Britain emerges victorious, but not defined by opposition to the continent.
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