Theatre review: The Dead Wait at Park Theatre

The Dead Wait, a 'gripping and thoughtful' play by Paul Herzberg is on at the Park Theatre in Finsbu

The Dead Wait, a 'gripping and thoughtful' play by Paul Herzberg is on at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park. - Credit: Archant

Stirring investigation into apartheid South Africa

‘In Africa there is no God,” states the embittered Papa Louw in writer Paul Herzberg’s ambitious play about South Africa’s tacit involvement in the war in Angola.

The play begins in Cape Town, 1989. National hero Gilmore (Austin Hardiman) is conscripted to go to war in Angola just before he becomes the first white athlete to break 10 seconds for the 100m. Under the leadership of fanatical Papa Louw (Herzberg himself), he is ordered to carry a wounded black freedom fighter, Jozana (Maynard Eziashi), to the border for interrogation. As Gilmore carries him over five days, a deep bond between the two men is forged. When Louw orders Gilmore to shoot him, his crisis becomes emblematic of South Africa’s impossible history and tenuous future.

Herzberg was inspired to write The Dead Wait after serving as a conscript in Angola. There’s more than a hint of Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness in his evocation of the Angolan bush as a lawless land where intimate, visceral bonds are forged between arbitrators and victims. There’s much to admire in the atmospheric production. Director Joe Harmston’s stark staging and Matthew Bugg’s heady score transport the audience over two decades to the different African locations. The acting is impressive. Herzberg is hypnotic as sadistic Afrikaaner Louw who taunts Gilmore because of the latter’s elevated social background. When Gilmore tracks Louw down 20 years later, he finds a broken, unemployed alcoholic. Louw’s bleak prophesy for South Africa’s future and dismissive attitude to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is signalled through Herzberg’s tautly physical performance as much as through language. As Jozana, Eziashi steers the role away from sentimentality and Adelayo Adedayo gives a beautifully understated performance as his estranged daughter Lily. Hardiman is certainly hardy as he carries Jozana for most of the action.

First staged in the UK in 2002, Herzberg has since cut back on historical detail. While this highlights the universality of the tragedy – humanity at war with itself – the writing falters. With its succession of monologues, the set-up is obtuse and the dialectical exchanges between Gilmore and Louw are overwritten. But when text and spectacle merge successfully, it is immensely stirring. Apartheid and the war in Angola are over but the play’s message is timeless.


Until December 1.