News agency, Cape Town, South Africa
Tuesday March 19th 2019

Waiting for the Barbarians becomes a tiresome exercise


South Africa, Cape Town. The performance of Alexandre Marine's adaptation of the J.M. Coetzee novel, Waiting for the Barbarians, at the Baxter Theatre.

My friends think I’m stupid but I’ve got a masculine aesthetic.

It’s an egregious misuse of a Tom Waits line but it explains why I so enjoy reading novelists such as William Faulkner, Cormac McCarthy and JM Coetzee.

They employ a dry understatement in conveying matters of great emotional weight, a technique that, employed by masters such as the above, adds depth to characters and situations. It is as if a world exists between sentences, a space where you can wander for hours before continuing the journey. Sometimes a small universe exists between a few words.

Yet somewhere between the novel and Alexandre Marine’s stage adaption of JM Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians, the concise quality of Coetzee’s novel became loquacious and overly emotional.

The humane magistrate of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians whose benign reign on the Empire’s frontier is thrown horrifically out of kilter by the arrival of the Third Bureau is transformed from a succinct, almost laconic narrator – akin to someone returning from witnessing the horrors of war providing a harrowingly dispassionate account – into a tortured being who bares his soul to all and sundry, endlessly analysing his inability to come to terms with the broken barbarian girl he craves to comfort and the incompatibility of his ethics and circumstance.

I am perplexed as to how this happened.

There is no fault with the acting. Lead actor Grant Swanby, who barely leaves the stage, does a superb job of portraying a man of intelligence, imagination and conscience – albeit with some harmless vices – forced into an untenable position.

Nicholas Pauling befits the supercilious, psychopathic Colonel of the Third Bureau, Ruben Engel is terrifying as his sado-masochist right-hand-man and Chuma Sopotela as the barbarian girl is perfectly inscrutable.

Chi Mhendes also deservers praise for her brassy portrayal of a fickle-hearted prostitute.

And Craig Leo’s starkly imaginative set is unerringly true to the sense and feel of the novel.

No, I suspect the switch from Coetzee’s heart-rendingly laconic writing to what for me became a rather tiresome self-analysis interspersed with evocative interludes of physical theatre lies in highly acclaimed Alexandre Marine’s decision to reproduce the text of the novel as much as possible.

I believe this was a mistake. Coetzee never wrote it for the stage and would have been better served by a focus on reproducing the ‘feel’ of the novel: the intellectual and emotional landscape it renders rather than the words on the page.

The suggestion that the play should be viewed independently of the novel also does not wash and even were that possible, Marine’s adaption would be more, not less unsteady without the book’s support.

There are wonderful elements in the play: the set, the acting, the symbolism. But as a whole I found it rather tiresome as the message it seeks to convey, the self-perpetuating folly of ignorance and fear manifest as cruelty directed toward an ‘other’, is repeated ad nauseum as Swanby is forced to act out the emotions on stage which Coetzee kept hidden on the page in order that the reader discover them through the use of their own imagination.


Waiting for the Barbarians runs at The Baxter Studio Theatre until this Saturday September 1. – Steve Kretzmann

Tags: Alexandre Marine, Chi Mhendes, Chuma Sopotela, Cormac McCarthy, Craig Leo, Grant Swanby, JM Coetzee, Nicholas Pauling, Ruben Engel, Third Bureau, Tom Waits, Waiting for the Barbarians, William Faulkner

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One Response to “Waiting for the Barbarians becomes a tiresome exercise”

  1. Jaqueline Dommisse says:

    I tried very hard to like this play. Such a strong and capable cast, I was expecting to be transported, but wasn’t. You’ve hit the nail on the head, Steve. Great clumsy clunky lumps of quoted text that didn’t integrate with the dance drama.

    I struggled with the brutal sexualisation of the women. I felt the physical violence was depicted symbolically, but the sexual violence more literally. I am no prude and am open to nudity on stage, but when the director seems to think that we won’t understand that the actors are having sex unless the women take off their clothes, but of course the men can keep their’s on, then my Feminist hackles rise. I know the misogyny is pure Coetzee, so this point may be unfair.

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