Waiting for the Barbarians.

Posted: August 28, 2012 in Theatre & Event Reviews and Interviews
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A Physical and philosophical exploration of existentialism.

This adaption of J.M Coetzee’s novel is a visual and cerebral feast from the beginning to its heartbreaking end. As it is the work of a Nobel Prize winner and directed by an award-wining director, my expectations were perhaps unrealistically high, however this powerful piece expertly delivered by a phenomenal cast, certainly did not disappoint.

The story is set in an imaginary place only referred to as the Empire. To those who live inside the Empire this seems to be the last vestige of the ‘so-called’ civilization with the Barbarians waiting at the door.  The setting is an abstract figment of Coezee’s fertile imagination. It reminds me of Waiting for Godot in as much as both locations appear to be surreal, timeless, ageless and almost afloat only as a philosophical exploration of existentialism and a struggle with the definition of morality.

Grant Swanby is the Empire’s magistrate who watches as his outpost is slowly destroyed by fear and paranoia fuelled by the truly evil Colonel, expertly played by Nicholas Pauling. The Colonel believes that the Barbarians are about to attack and he sets out on a counter attack.  Here it all becomes a little abstract as we are left to wonder if the Barbarians actually exist or if they are the embodiment of an internal struggle between the ‘civilization as we know it, and a primal call to return to the land and a simpler truer life.

The concept of the Barbarians physically arrives in the form of a captured Barbarian girl, Chuma Sopotela.  The girl is tortured in a heart-breaking exquisitely depicted scene and she is left blind and crippled.  I can never get enough of watching Sopotela perform. She is simply magic. Her performances are understated and utterly believable.

Grant Swanby, Chuma Sopotela in Waiting for the Barbarians, pic by Rodger Bosch

Sopotela’s arrival and torture is the catalyst that takes us to the second half of the play. Swanby’s character in truly spectacular form complete falls apart both physically and mentally. He decides to look after the Barbarian girl in and is tormented by his constant sexual fantasies, desire and his struggle with morality.

He often visits a prostitute, Chi Mhendes.  Swanby and Mhendes’ performances are perfectly played out against each other. He brings to the stage a wealth of experience and a superbly controlled style whereas Mhendes is younger and less controlled which she uses with great effect. Her performance is raw and very real and you can’t take your eyes off her.

Swanby’s character decides to return the Barbarian girl to her people and together they undertake an epic journey. Upon his return he is thrown in jail, tortured and humiliated, for deserting his post and fraternizing with the enemy.

Swanby’s deterioration and psychological struggle in the second half is powerful and expertly performed.  More themes such as colonialism, and the very the nature of beauty and love are explored. It is a multi-layered, complex piece that should have you mulling over it long after curtain call.

Owen Manamela-Mogane, Alistair Moulton Black, Ruben Engel and Anele Situlweni all bring to the play equal amounts of passion and excellence.

We are spoiled in South Africa to have some of the most incredible set designers.  However, Craig Leo has taken this design to another level entirely. By his imagination he has brought to life this mythical otherworld, the wastelands and the prostitute’s room. I will say no more so as not to spoil the magic. It simply has to be seen to be believed. The costume design is also by Craig Leo. I found the accompanying music at times quite distracting, threatening to drown out the dialogue, and perhaps the first half was a little slow to get off the ground, other than that I cannot have enough praise for such a perfectly executed play.

The multiple award-winning director Alexandre Marine, recipient of the Distinguished Artist of Russia award, has directed more than 70 productions all over the world and he brings to the play a very keen eye and a wealth of experience.

The play is set to go to Montreal for a run and I would venture a guess that it will completely blow the Canadians away and that there are a couple of awards awaiting this piece.

First Published in The Sunday Independent, 26 August 2012

Waiting for the Barbarians carries an age restriction of 14 years. The play runs until 1 September at 7pm nightly. Booking is through Computicket on 0861 915 8000, online at www.computicket.co.za or at any Shoprite Checkers outlet.

The End



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