Snapdragon Productions’s latest offering, The Dead Wait, currently playing at the Park Theatre, transports us back to the racially divided and violent South Africa of the late 80s, offering audiences an interesting insight into war, race, and learning to shoulder the burden of our personal and collective pasts.
The play is slightly mystifying to begin with, lurching between an introduction to the young and promising athlete, Josh Gilmore (Austin Hardiman), on the day he botches an important race, to a lengthy monologue from George Jozana (Maynard Eziashi) from beyond the grave on his wait for “the return of the runner”. This kind of heavily expositional beginning, packed with recordings of radio commentators, the sound of marimbas playing and distant warfare, does thankfully begin to give way to an intriguing play about friendship and strength as story starts to reveal itself.
The Dead Wait begins to find its stride when Josh, fighting in Angola, is ordered by Papa Louw (played by Paul Herzberg – an accomplished actor and also the playwright) to carry a wounded black freedom fighter, George, on his back to the border, 50km away. As Josh’s stamina is tested, so are his beliefs about the war he is fighting, who he is and, more importantly, who he can trust. Hardimore’s performance really is a feat of endurance, as he carries Exiashi for a huge portion of the play, though never failing to bring complexity and colour to the role, marking him out as a worthy and talented actor among a generally very strong cast.
However, the play, while interesting for shedding light on a world so different to our own, ends up feeling predictable when Josh and George inevitably overcome their vastly different backgrounds and beliefs to forge an unlikely friendship out in the bush. And while Herzberg also ties in an interesting tension between Papa and Josh, exploring hierarchical army relationships, jealousy and resentment, even this is explored only through dialogue and explanation, rather than in action and behaviour, making it all feel a bit old hat. Ultimately, I often felt as though I was being told, or informed, about the world of the play and these relationships, which had such potential for being so detailed and fascinating, rather than shown them.
Moreover, the heavy subject matter is never fully brought to fruition by the set, which offers a barren and sparse aesthetic, but one without any discernible meaningful contribution to the production. While one might draw a metaphor from the appearance of a grave-like opening downstage right, this actually tended to adopt a more functional use as a pseudo prop-store when the stage needed clearing between scenes, rather than being treated with any symbolic meaning or resonance, which would have been all the more satisfying.
Nonetheless, there are some hugely successful moments in the play which make for memorable watching. While the play’s lengthy first half lurches to its climax, punctuated by scenes which often end as soon as they start with little sense of an arc, the choice Josh has to make between his own life and that of George’s had the whole audience leaning forward in their seats to see which path he would take.
The play’s brief second half takes place in the present as Josh seeks retribution for the crime he believes he was forced to commit by Papa. It is here that the play’s metaphor is brought to the fore and its theatricality undermined, as George’s daughter, Lily, explains to Josh that he must carry the burden of his own past. While this brought a nice poetic circularity to the piece, it was this spoon-feeding which made me question why this drawn out and heavy-handed piece needed to be staged, when even its staging was limited to being largely functional by such a dense text which had failed to exploit the dramatic potential of such interesting characters and subject matter.
The Dead Wait is playing at the Park Theatre until 1 December. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website.