One antidote to watching, or reading, a harrowing tale is to reassure yourself that it isn’t true. But Dead Wait came from the recollection of a man on a train in England, telling scriptwriter Paul Herzberg of his nephew’s experience as a soldier in the border war between Angola and South Africa. So no such antidote with this harrowing production.
This production of Dead Wait has been updated by Herzberg since its world premiere in Johannesburg in 1997, with the setting shifted forward in time but the plot remaining the same otherwise. Josh Gilmore, a promising South Africa athlete, is conscripted into war under commander Papa Louw. In Angola they come across a badly-wounded black freedom fighter, George Jozana. Josh is ordered to carry George all the way back to the border so that he can be interrogated. The bond that forms between the two men is all but inevitable, and so is its tragic outcome.
Credit is due to Austin Hardiman for his portrayal of Josh, in what is surely an incredibly demanding role in terms of both physical and emotional exertion. For much of the play George rides on Josh’s back, forcing Austin to maintain a jogging movement on the spot while carrying the weight of another actor and delivering lines. Meanwhile George, played by Maynard Eziashi, convincingly depicts a man who is in agony from his wound and knows that death is most likely near. In one particular scene his suffering was so distressingly realistic that I wanted to look away. George’s daughter, played by Adelayo Adedayo, appears less frequently but manages to be a fierce and defiant presence when she does.
…I felt the strength of his performance was to the detriment of the play…
I found Paul Herzberg’s commander to be the most interesting character, with layers of complexity that drew hate and pity in equal parts. Knowing that Herzberg himself served as a conscript in the war made watching his performance all the more impactful; what depths did he have to find in himself for this role? Yet as strange as it may sound, I felt the strength of his performance was to the detriment of the play, as it sometimes distracted from its other elements.
The cast handled the sparse space of the stage skilfully, and the addition of loud sound effects like gunshot and missile blasts made the audience feel very much a part of the story. The shifts between day and night perhaps could have been denoted more clearly by the lighting, but this is a minor technical quibble.
…by the end I could feel tears pricking my eyes…
Dead Wait is a compellingly told story, and while it’s the shock and horror that most people will go away remembering, its script is not without moments of welcome black humour. It makes for difficult viewing, and asks difficult questions; by the end I could feel tears pricking my eyes. Herzberg uses true life – a man carrying his enemy on his back – to present a powerful metaphor of the burden of a wrongful act. The play’s South African setting is steeped in the context of racial conflict, but its overarching theme of justice can resonate in any time, and in any war.