January 24, 2013

Segal Centre presents 'Waiting for the Barbarians'

MONTREAL — The enemy approaches. The barbarians are coming. But is the enemy within?

Beginning Sunday, the Segal Centre will present “Waiting for the Barbarians,” a political thriller based on the 1980 book by South African Nobel laureate J.M. Coetzee. The play, produced by Maurice Podbrey, the founding artistic director of Montreal’s Centaur Theatre, is the Segal’s first-ever co-production; the work is staged in association with the Baxter Theatre Centre of Cape Town, South Africa. It’s adapted and directed for the stage by Russian ex-pat Alexandre Marine.


“Yes, the barbarians are coming, but who are they?” Podbrey asked. “Just what is a barbarian?”

Podbrey said the title of the book and play is taken from a poem of the same name, which was written in 1904 by Greek-Egyptian poet Constantine P. Cavafy.

“The poem talked about this great fear that we have of ourselves and our culture. There are foreigners and there are others. There are people who are not like us,” Podbrey said. “And that poses a threat.”

This abstract idea, he said, can often lead us into war or change our collective way of thinking.

“It can lead us to do things that we would not ordinarily do.”

Podbrey said the notion stems from when the ancient Greeks settled the Black Sea and traded with nomadic tribes.

“They called all those people who couldn’t speak Greek, barbarians,” Podbrey said. “It’s an idea that has been very conveniently used by successive empires from the Romans to the Europeans with their colonial conquests of the world.”

Podbrey said that when you designate a people “barbarians,” the terms gets easily absorbed into a mass psychology.

“So the play deals interestingly about people who are different from us.”


The work is constructed into a political thriller in which a small town on the empire’s edge is run by a local magistrate. The magistrate gets invited to visit the local army, which is preparing for war against the barbarians.

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