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Russian director Alexandre Marine has adapted JM Coetzee’s novel, Waiting for the Barbarians for the stage. It premieres at The Baxter’s Golden Arrow Studio Theatre on August 18. GLYNIS O’HARA found out more.
JM COETZEE’S famous novel has been dramatised for the first time by a Russian theatre director, and will premiere here because he couldn’t get it staged in Moscow. A theatre in the capital declined it for this year, explains Alexandre Marine, leading him to speculate that the presidential elections – when Vladimir Putin won elections that have been criticised by some as unfair and was sworn in on May 7, may have made the atmosphere too explosive.
“Nobody told me this was the case, but that’s what I suspect,” he says, speaking by phone from Montreal, Canada, where he mainly lives and works.
Moscow has been restless since December when protesters took to the streets over the Russian legislative election. Opposition leaders want a more open, accountable, democratic society and claim there is widespread corruption.
“The stand-off between the ruling elite and the opposition has reached boiling point,” comments Marine. “The situation is very tough and I think it’s all connected (to the play being declined).”
Theatre in Russia is a powerful, he adds. “Russian audiences are very sensitive to what happens on stage – people go there to get new ideas. Theatre has a purpose there. The tradition comes from years of living under the Soviet system. Only theatre took this role on – it wasn’t easy then, but we were able to do it.”
Theatregoers here will understand what he means, as theatre in our country in the 1980s and early 1990s at least, seemed to be the only place where truths could be named without the censor descending.
Marine, 53, who visited SA for the first time in March, says he chose to turn Coetzee’s book into a play because he read it 10 years ago and was thrilled by it. “I was possessed by the idea of doing something with it in theatre.”
Coetzee has approved Marine’s adaptation of the 1980 novel. The lead roles are to be played by Grant Swanby (magistrate), Nicholas Pauling (Lieutenant Joll, the jackboot of the state) and Chuma Sopotela (girl – a mysterious barbarian captive), according to producer Maurice Podbrey.
“In writing the stage version,” says Marine. “I was trying to keep the spirit of the book as it is, but I couldn’t stick to it exactly. I had to change some development and characters for the play to be understandable. But I have kept the allegory, the symbolic nature of the work.”
The role of “the girl” in the play is pivotal, he says, because it’s only through the magistrate’s relationship with her that he changes.
“He feels guilty about the torture the Empire inflicts, so he takes the girl into his house – to try to erase his guilt. Through his intimate connection to her, things change and develop. For me it’s quite an amazing description of how a man can open up to a new reality through a woman. It’s unique in literature, I think.”
The novel, which he describes as “poetic and philosophical”, has been staged in a different way once before, in 2005, by contemporary composer Philip Glass, who wrote an opera based on the work. Glass said at the time that he saw clear parallels between the book and the invasion of Iraq.
Alexandre, born in 1958 in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, has not seen the opera, but agrees about Iraq and adds Libya and Afghanistan. “And it will, unfortunately, not surprise me if other ‘barbarian’ countries soon follow.”
Given the nature of politics, who would argue? Certainly not a man born and brought up in the Soviet Union. The son of engineering, scientific, people, it was something of a shock when he announced he liked acting. He went to school in Voronezh, near the border with contemporary Ukraine.
“At 15, I was invited to do a play with an amateur group, and I got such a good response from the audience that
“I felt this was what I wanted to do. In this profession you get the chance to live many different lives. You can be a saint, murderer, lover, stranger, have a mistress, you can experiment with other lives. And that’s attractive.”
He went on to carve out a highly successful career for himself as an actor and director, mainly in Russia and Canada, staging work by Anton Chekov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, William Shakespeare, Tom Stoppard, Bertolt Brecht and – just once – Noël Coward, in Moscow in 2008.
He has observed the major themes of Coetzee’s book in action and he was a witness to the bringing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
“It was an amazing time, amazing. I never dreamed I would be working in the West,” he says.
And here he is – not only working in the West, but in the south, too. And so in love with our most famous literary man’s work that he’s spent months working on it to bring it to the stage for us.
l Previews are on August 16 and 17, and the show runs from August 18 to September 1. Call 0861 915 8000.