Nobel Laureate JM Coetzee’s iconic novel Waiting for the Barbarians tackles head on the complex dialectics between the oppressed and the oppressor under a totalitarian regime. It’s considered a hugely progressive and introspective novel, and in its adaptation for the stage by Russian director Alexander Marine, it makes for an interesting if challenging theatre experience.
The production is a visual indulgence as Marine presents an audience with beautiful and creative motifs such as surreal dream sequences in which cascades of feathers represent snowfall. Painted screens cleverly serve as a multi-purposive background, depicting vague imagery in thick, etching-style paintings that constantly intrigue and engage the imagination. In fact I was fixated on this shape shifting imagery throughout the production.
The adaptation does justice to the novel’s aesthetic, presenting the audience with an imaginary and undefined time and place, employing an evocative surrealism that strikes the perfect balance between alienation and sensory indulgence. Thus in terms of presenting a unique visual aesthetic this superlatively artistic piece is an excellent execution of art for art’s sake.
However in terms of the way the narrative and the greater socio-political themes and motifs are presented the production’s abstract mode can sometimes be a little alienating. The play is narrated by the protagonist, the Magistrate of an unnamed totalitarian empire who, when faced with certain events, goes through a crisis of ethics.
The little border outpost in which the Magistrate lives is occupied by a secretive body, the ‘Third Bureau’ which is militarising for an attack by a tribe of elusive savage barbarians who are never really seen but who perpetuate a thought-provoking presence throughout the play.
When faced with the acts of brutality committed by the power structures he unwillingly serves, the Magistrate has to make the decisions of all those who live in conscious complicity with totalitarian regimes. He engages in introspection that takes the form of a rhythmic stream of consciousness, delving into complex philosophical and moral issues to create a critical analysis of the dynamics of political oppression. This mode is highly successful in the original text where one can pore over the pages and muse on Coetzee’s heavily loaded prose. But adapted to the theatre this mode of narration can both monotonous and confusing. Unlike the visual aesthetic, I found myself wishing that the production had adapted the text further to make it more accessible.
But despite this, Grant Swanby excellently embodies the challenging allegorical character of the Magistrate. Amidst the narrative quagmire he gives the audience an attention-grabbing character with whom it is easy to empathise. Similarly, the performances of the rest of the cast succeed in embodying certain allegorical roles and political motifs, thereby allowing the audience to understand the heightened cerebral nature of the text.
An emotionally evocative performance is given by Chuma Sopotela who, in the role of a captured ‘barbarian girl’, uses her engaging physical ability to aptly highlight the misunderstood ‘otherness’ of herself and her people. This character is strikingly juxtaposed with Nick Pauling who, with his sharp clean mannerisms and candid cruelty gives a spine-tingling performance as the Chief Torturer, a zealot who is fundamentally fixated on his political beliefs.
All in all this complex adaptation with its meta-theatrical elements is not only a must-see piece for ardent theatre goers and the Cape Town literati but serves as an important and well thought-out work that does justice to Coetzee’s original anthropological analysis.
Waiting for the Barbarians runs at the Baxter Theatre 16 August to 6 September 2012.
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