JM Coetzee’s novel which interrogates violence as a manifestation of fear, Waiting for the Barbarians, has been celebrated and prescribed since its first publication 22 years ago. Turned into an opera seven years ago by US composer Philip Glass, it has now been adapted for the local stage by Russian actor/director/playwright Alexandre Marine for the first time.
ALEXANDRE Marine wanted to adapt Waiting for the Barbarians as soon as he read the book almost 20 years ago.
“I think it’s the most important book of the second part of the 20th century, for me personally.
“It predicts where we are, what’s going to happen to us, how we are going to look at certain issues. It talks about a modern reality, politics and the modern world,” said Marine in an inter-view at the Baxter Theatre.
Published in 1980, JM Coetzee’s novel is set in an unnamed empire, and told from the point of view of an unnamed magistrate. The main character goes through a crisis of conscience, with the story becoming an allegory for people who live in complicity with oppressive regimes.
While Coetzee explored issues of guilt and personal morality in the book, he does so with elegant economy, and readers the world over have drawn parallels with their own countries, though the author never names any specific place or person.
“This novel (Waiting for the Barbarians) is about human nature, our profound feelings towards each other,” said Marine.
Adapting the novel for stage was a 10-year process of negotiating with theatres in Montreal and Moscow, but the timing wasn’t right.
“On first look, you imagine a big movie because everything is so graphic, so specifically described,” expanded Marine.
However, the theatre is where the 53-year-old expresses himself best. He has gradually progressed from acting to directing to writing over a career which spans the stage and silver screen.
He originally wrote a Russian adaptation to mount it in Moscow, but a conversation with SA producer Maurice Podbury about two years ago opened the possibility to a local production.
Marine’s son Dmitri helped with an English translation (which was submitted to Coetzee’s agents for approval) and they’ve been in rehearsals in Cape Town since the middle of July. The cast of eight includes Grant Swanby as the magistrate and Chuma Sopotela as the woman crippled by the torturers of the Third Bureau.
Another change is that
this cast is smaller than originally envisaged.
Marine is impressed by the group spirit that exists within this cast: “It’s something new for me, I couldn’t say 100 percent what it is. Maybe it has to do with the history of South Africa and the history of black-white relations here. We can very easily bring into our conversation racial issues and talk about it very seriously and everyone is very open to this. It’s something you couldn’t find sometimes in other countries.”
has worked in Japan, Canada, the US and Russia, says: “The strongest part of Russian theatre is psychological theatre where you are capable of portraying certain things which are happening underneath the text.”
Since the novel was written as an internal monologue, he had to introduce certain scenes to expand it, but he did lift some scenes directly from the text: “For those who know the novel it would be interesting to watch, because they’d recognise certain parts and they’d see other thoughts have been transformed into dramatic action.
“In the novel you can simply describe thoughts, or talk about it, but in theatre you have to create a dramatic interaction.”
In addition to helping his father with the translation, 28-year-old Dmitri is creating an original soundtrack for the production. He’s trying to reflect the novel’s universal themes, with strings and percussions, “a little bit of kalimba but then there’s some piano”.
Dmitri has been working during the rehearsal period to pre-record tracks that will be used in the finished production, which don’t necessarily reflect one specific style or place.
“As soon as we say this is South Africa, it reduces the value of this universe. He (Coetzee) created the universe not specifically talking about any place in the world. It’s very smart writing,” explained Alexandre.
“What has to be very specific is the feelings of the human beings on stage, the actors. Their thoughts which connect us to the real contemporary world.
“The rest has to be recognisable by human values or human history which exists in our minds, like he did it in the book.”
Waiting for the Barbarians will form part of the Gipca’s Directors and Directing symposium which takes place at the end of August.
The theme for this year’s symposium is “Plays and the Playwright” and Marine says he cannot overemphasise the importance of the playwright in theatre. “The first thing you remember from the Bible, this wonderful line: ‘in the beginning was the Word’,” he said.
• Waiting for the Barbarians runs at the Baxter, Golden Arrow Studio, from August 16 to September 1.