‘Waiting for the Barbarians’ makes North American debut at the Segal

Morgan Lowrie
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“If there is anyone in some remote future interested to know the way we lived, that in this farthest outpost in the empire of life, there existed one man, who, in his heart, was not a barbarian.”

Original cast of Waiting for the Barbarians.

These words, read in a deep South African accent, introduce audiences to the Segal Centre’s upcoming play, Alexandre Marine’s adaptation of J.M Coetzee’s world-renowned novel, Waiting for the Barbarians.

The play is told from the perspective of a man known simply as ‘The Magistrate,’ a simple civil servant who is swept up into chaos when his town is warned of a planned invasion by the ‘Barbarians,’ shadowy nomadic groups living outside the city’s limits.

As the army sweeps in and begins to capture and persecute the outsiders, the Magistrate begins to question the merciless cruelty of those around him, especially when he rescues a young barbarian girl.  As the play goes on, he is faced to come face to face with the cruelty of human nature and ask himself who the barbarians really are after all.

South African-born Coetzee first wrote the novel in 1980 as an allegory for apartheid, and the Segal’s production reflects these African roots.  The play is co-presented by the Baxter Theatre group from South Africa, and the original cast have all made the journey from Cape Town to Montreal to present the play on the Segal’s stage.

The man who brought them here is no stranger to Montreal theatre.  Legendary actor and director Maurice Podbrey co-founded the Centaur Theatre in 1969, and served as its artistic director for almost three decades.  After spending most of the last 14 years working in South Africa, he is proud to produce Waiting for the Barbarians for a Montreal stage.

“It is a play that is relevant in so many ways,” he said.  “It deals with fundamental human nature, and how we deal with the ‘other,’ with those we perceive to be outsiders,” he said.

“I ended up founding the Centaur, in part, because I wanted to live in Montreal. It was easy to fall in love with the city at the time." Maurice Podbrey

He says that, although the play was originally written about apartheid, the play’s universal themes can apply to many of the world’s modern conflicts.  In Canada, he sees echoes of these themes in the country’s dealing with its aboriginal people, among others.

He says the play presented here will be almost identical to the South African production, except that the Montreal version will take advantage of the Segal’s slightly bigger stage.

For Podbrey, working on a play in Montreal is a kind of homecoming.  Born in South Africa, he came to the city in 1966 to take a job at the National Theatre School, and was instantly smitten.

“I ended up founding the Centaur, in part, because I wanted to live in Montreal.  It was easy to fall in love with the city at the time.  We’d just had the World Fair, and the whole world had come here.  There was great optimism and great energy.”

Since leaving for South Africa in 1997, Podbrey has continued to return.  His daughter, Alison Darcy, is a director here, and much of his family remains. 

And he says that, although he would like to slow down soon, he remains impassioned by the world of theatre that has provided his livelihood for fifty years.

“Every time I see something new and good, or watch a new talent coming up, I get excited again,” he said.

Waiting for the Barbarians runs from January 27 to February 17.  For information and tickets, visit www.segalcentre.org or call (514) 739-7944.

Organizations: Segal Centre, North American, Baxter Theatre Montreal theatre Centaur Theatre National Theatre School Centaur

Geographic location: Montreal, South Africa, Cape Town Canada

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