There are some plays that need to be mulled over and digested before writing about them.  Waiting for the Barbarians, at The Segal Theatre is one such play. Written by author, J.M. Coetzee, it was adapted for the stage by Alexandre Marine who also directs The Segal production. The show is produced by Maurice Podbrey (past Artistic Director and Founder of The Centaur Theatre), who is now living part time in South Africa where he developed MoPo Cultural Trust, “…a company dedicated to the development of new theatrical talent”.

The story takes place in an unnamed ‘Empire’ and is told from the perspective of The Magistrate living in the area.  His life is easy going. He gets on with the locals, does his job, and visits the local prostitute…frequently. Enter the military troops, with the sole purpose of catching and annihilating the ‘barbarians’ who live in the desert over the borders of the ‘Empire’. They have, until this point, lived quietly and unobtrusively. The Magistrate becomes aware of and opposes the brutal treatment of prisoners captured – one of them a young girl whom he helps, risking his own life, and with whom he becomes involved, which eventually leads to his downfall.

What ensues is a battle between those in power and the poor – historically seen on so many levels: between countries, between neighbourhoods, between cultures and, between people. It is an age-old battle that is still recognized in today’s world. It is a battle that will probably continue as long as there is man, money, and territory to be taken – especially from those cultures the ‘civilized’ nations don’t understand, or care to understand. Nations that rule with greed and unyielding power.

“The barbarians are immoral, filthy and stupid” – a most revealing line from the play.

The actors, all but one of whom have done this play before, are from South Africa. As an ensemble group they are truly outstanding.

Grant Swanby (The Magistrate) is so focused, so grounded in the role, he grabs your attention from the start. It is difficult to take your eyes off him. Just watch his eyes – especially in the second act. Such depth, such pain. (It is difficult to watch the torture scenes.) These scenes are all created with vivid imagination – the directors and the viewers. Swanby is a tour de force in this production and drives the action with a solid performance, necessary to define the inevitability of this allegory’s outcome.

Nicholas Pauling (Colonel Joll) adds his powerful presence and extraordinary performance as the villainous counterbalance to the multi complexities of the seeming good. His delivery is sharp, cruel and reminiscent of so many maniacal torturers of the past.

Chuma Chopetela (Barbarian Girl), presents a beautiful performance through her agility and ability to convey through body language.

The production is presented in an abstract, surreal fashion and is an artistic vision for the eyes. The dance/movement sequences flow smoothly with graceful sensuality. The set by Craig Leo is minimal, supporting the many creative scenes with falling snow and large white floating sheets, or torches lining the background.

Direction by Marine is fluid, intricate and wonderful to discover. He makes us see beyond the stage to the never ending history of man’s unrelenting struggle in his search to find peace within and around him.

Watching Waiting for the Barbarians is hard work for the viewer. A cerebral play, it demands the complete attention of the audience. Long after leaving the theatre, it hovers over you like a dark cumulous and won’t go away. It is full of philosophical dilemmas, racial tensions, unkindness to man… all of which leaves us a lot to think about.

On at The Segal Theatre until February 17. For more information:
Box Office: 514-739-7944

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