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WAITING FOR THE BARBARIANS
DIRECTOR: Alexandre Marine
CAST: Grant Swanby, Nicholas Pauling, Chuma Sopotela, Owen Manamela-Mogane, Chi Mhende, Alistair Moulton Black, Ruben Engel and Anele Situlweni
VENUE: Golden Arrow Theatre, Baxter Theatre
UNTIL: September 1
SET IN AN unnamed border post on the edge of a time-less empire, Waiting for the Barbarians is a story about the complicity of man with a regime that ignores its own justice.
While this play’s source material – JM Coetzee’s auded and awarded book – is more a thinkpiece, with its first-person stream-of-conscious-ness and moral questioning, director/adaptor Alexandre Marine’s play is much more visceral.
We get dancing in dream sequences and feathers for snow, but the story still comes from the Magistrate (Swanby), who directly addresses the audience as he inter-rogates his own thoughts.
Where the book dealt in nebulous ideas with elegant, concise prose, the play crystallises the action and presents you with several different ways in which Man and Woman abrogate their responsibility towards humankind.
Upon entering the intimate theatre space you are confronted with painted screens on the stage. The paint streaks are suggestive of landscapes in the distance and figures in the foreground.
As the play progresses the screens become various things – walls, alleys and mountain ranges.
Throughout the first act you try to make sense of the vaguely suggested figure barely etched on the screen. In the second act, the figure comes into sharp relief when a character describes a particular form of torture which makes its victims very acquiescent. Now you can’t get the image out of your mind.
As the little town is occupied by soldiers and the secretive Third Bureau, dispatched to meet the attacking barbarians, the Magistrate fights against what he thinks of as wrong actions, even when he struggles to explain exactly why.
While the town is never actually attacked by the barbarians, we do get to see victims of barbarity, which makes you question just who are the barbarians. “I’m sorry, Magistrate, but it’s not my business,” says the lieutenant (Manamela-Mogane) when asked what exactly happened to cripple the barbarian girl.
We get a named character in Zoe (Mhende), a prostitute the Magistrate frequents who stands in for one version of victim while the unnamed barbarian girl (Sopotela) is the “other” that the Magistrate never really understands.
Sopotela uses her physical skills to good effect, creating a barbarian girl who moves differently to every-one else, totally outside their experience, and Nicholas Pauling is chilling as chief torturer Colonel Joll who fervently believes his way is the right way.
Still, the play steps from moment to moment – from one good line to the next. It’s still a cerebral exercise.
Swanby’s mental handwringing is overshadowed by Pauling’s precise mannerisms, but where the book was spare and concise, the play is still loose and doesn’t come together just yet. Perhaps as the actors settle into their roles and interaction they will gel.
Each of the characters is still an archetype so there is no reason to be emotionally invested in any of them. You can get away with the distance in a book, but not in a play. It doesn’t yet leave you with that sense of dread and menace evoked by the book’s ending, but it could.
• The play carries an age restriction of PG16 because of the nudity.