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Theatre Review: Waiting for the Barbarians

Playing at the Segal Centre, until February 17, 5170 Ch. Cote-Ste-Catherine, Montreal, H3W 1M7, 514-739-7944. This review will appear on the website WhereAreTheShows dot com. 

J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians is a journey into the darkest reaches of the colonial mind. Set in a timeless frontier town on the edge of civilized South Africa, it tells the story of a local magistrate and his efforts to curb the aggression of his superiors, a malignant militia representing The Empire.

The magistrate is played by renowned South African actor Grant Swanby. His conversations with Colonel Joll, recently arrived from The Capital, kickstart a sequence of events familiar to those who understand the horrors (and ironies) of colonialism. Joll is the sadist responsible for the coming turmoil and is a played by another South African, Nicholas Pauling. His speeches are eloquent, but marred by the euphemistic glibness characteristic of powers seeking to propagate at any cost. The unfolding degradation of the magistrate and the Barbarians meld into one as the real enemy emerges. The true Barbarians, as it turns out, are Joll and his fellow colonizers.

The magistrate’s narration drives the play and his sexualized and peaceful relationship with the inhabitants of this outpost are disturbed by forces far darker than he can anticipate. His pastime of unearthing the remnants of a local and ancient village – said to have once belonged to the Barbarians – is symbolic of the depths of depravity he experiences at the hands of his higher-ups. The theme of archeology is important; it asks us to plumb our own depths and to re-evaluate our ideas about Barbarians, those archetypal outsiders who frighten us by showing us our own capacities for aggression and hatred.

The actors are in constant motion on-stage and the clever use of drapery and projection convey the ruthlessness and vigour of The Empire. The performance slips seamlessly into the dreams of the magistrate and is fluid and stylized, incorporating dance and narration that take us deeply into his troubled soul. Coetzee’s observations about the horrors of Apartheid come to life in the form of the magistrate’s torment. His struggles show us the futility of trying to reason with the childish cruelty of a righteous mob.

Producer Maurice Podbrey hails from South Africa and came to Canada via the United Kingdom. He became the founding director of the Centaur and helped establish regional theatre in Canada. After Apartheid, he returned to his homeland and established the Mopo trust with a view to developing theatrical talent there. Waiting for the Barbarians, is a new play and is being produced in association with the Baxter Theatre Centre of Capetown. It is based on Coetzee’s novel of the same name and draws on talent from three continents.

Coetzee’s unflinching treatment of Apartheid, apparent in all his works, is particularly relevant for us in Canada today. The rising voice of the Idle No More movement is joining Coetzee’s and is asking us to consider the plight of mistreated aboriginals the world over.




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