Nudity, sex, violence and death all come together to provoke and thrill in this certainly not-safe-for-children theatrical adaptation of Nobel Prize winning South African author J.M. Coetzee’s novel Waiting for the Barbarians.
The play takes place in an unnamed country run by “The Empire” where news has spread about an attack planned by “the barbarians” who live on the other side of a wall partitioning the country. In an effort to crush this supposed attack the Empire’s Third Bureau, led by Colonel Joll, sets forth on a campaign to stop the barbarians by torturing and killing them. One man, known only as the Magistrate, doubts the truth of this rumour and condemns the persecution of the barbarians. His protests are further escalated when he takes in and befriends a barbarian girl who was left blind and handicapped after a raid.
The play is directed and produced by international and local celebrities from the world of theatre. Alexandre Marine (adaptor, director) is an internationally acclaimed actor and director, and winner of multiple awards in Russia, the U.S. and Quebec. Maurice Podbrey is a pioneer of English theatre in Montreal and is the co-founder of the Centaur Theatre. Podbrey, along with Marine, first showed this production in Cape Town, South Africa, then brought the members of the South African cast back with them to perform in Montreal.
Nicholas Pauling delivers a spine-chilling performance as the bureaucratic and psychopathic Colonel Joll. In stark contrast, Grant Swanby plays the intelligent and sensitive Magistrate, who is eventually driven almost to insanity by the cruelty he witnesses in the treatment of the barbarians. The magic happens when Swanby and Chuma Sopotela, playing the dignified and blind young barbarian girl, interact together on stage, synching emotionally and physically in tender tension. A mention should be given to Montreal’s Kimberly-Anne Laferriere, who gave an exuberant performance as the prostitute Zoe, replacing Zimbabwe-born Chiedza Mhende who was not permitted to enter the country by Canadian Immigration.
It was the brilliant set design however, that truly stole the show. Set and costume designer Craig Leo’s simple but imaginatively placed multi-purpose glass screens expanded the parameters of the stage to create a world much broader than the confines of the stage originally permitted. The light play of shadows against light, snow against fire and dances interspersed within the performance expressed emotions beyond the lines of the script, evoking a surrealism that both alienated and indulged the senses in its starkness and luxury.
The rhythmical stream of consciousness monologues and the investigation of complex philosophical and moral issues demands emotional and intellectual investment from the audience, whilst the meta-theatrical elements and the overall visual aesthetic work together to pamper and satisfy the viewer.
Waiting for the Barbarians may seem to be an allegory for South Africa’s apartheid but it would be an injustice to deny the universality of its story. The play explores a political reality and examines modern day barbarism. The surreal and omnipresent quality of the story in its exploration of the alienation of “the other” leaves the viewer with a rewarding experience.
Waiting for the Barbarians runs at the Segal Center for Performing Arts until Feb. 17.