By STEVEN HOWELL
---- — 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.
FEAR OF DIFFERENCES
“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.
“And in the process of the occupation they change the whole nature of the town,” Podbrey said.
The army soon begins to rule with a brutal hand.
“The magistrate tries to deal with this new consequence and falls victim to it himself,” Podbrey said. “The narrative continues with the magistrate, who tries to understand himself in a changing situation.”
The project was suggested to Podbrey by Marine, who first adapted the work into his native Russian. Podbrey said the initial response in modern Russia, where the play was to debut, proved quite interesting.
“It was more interesting than Marine thought. In fact, they got a bit nervous about it. Apparently they take their politics quite seriously,” Podbrey said.
Possible ruffled feathers meant the Russian adaptation was postponed. Podbrey suggested a translation back into English to be staged in Cape Town.
“Which would be a natural place for the play.”
‘HELL OF A CHALLENGE’
The adaptation was submitted to Coetzee for approval, and the work got a green light. It was presented at the Baxter Theatre Centre in April 2012. The Segal cast is the same South African cast who originated the work.
Adapting such an abstract novel into a staged political thriller “was a hell of a challenge,” Podbrey said.
“When you read the novel, you can’t imagine how it would adapt to the stage,” he said. “It’s got fantasy and intense psychological elements with a narrator who weaves in and out of the story with great subtly.”
Podbrey admitted he was amazed at the result.
“I wouldn’t have known how to do it myself. I’m full of admiration for Marine’s version,” Podbrey said. “I just hope the audience is enlivened by the experience.”
“Waiting for the Barbarians” is presented Sunday, Jan. 27, through Feb. 17.
The Segal’s Sunday at the Segal series features an intimate talk with Podbrey and Monica Popescu, an associate professor at McGill University and a specialist in post-colonial literature. It’s held at the Segal at 11 a.m. Sunday, Jan. 27, with an extended workshop on the conversation at McGill University at 7 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 3.
Steven Howell is the author of Montreal Essential Guide, a Sutro Media iPhone travel app available at iTunes.com.IF YOU GO WHAT: "Waiting for the Barbarians" WHEN: Sunday, Jan. 27, through Sunday, Feb. 17. WHERE: The Segal Centre for Performing Arts is at 5170 Chemin Cote St. Catherine, Montreal. Take Autoroute 15 North (I-87 after the border), and continue over the Champlain Bridge. Take exit 66, Cote St. Luc/Queen Mary, and continue on the Decarie Expressway service road for about five minutes. Turn right on Chemin Cote Ste. Catherine. The Segal Centre is two blocks on the right. ADMISSION: Adult tickets range from $36 to $46 depending on day and time of performance. Discounts are available for seniors and students. CONTACT: Call (514) 739-7944 or visit www.segalcentre.org.