The Dead Wait

Paul Herzberg
Snapdragon Productions
Park Theatre

Austin Hardiman as Josh Gilmore and Maynard Eziashi as George Jozana Credit: Keith Pattison
Paul Herzberg as Papa louw Credit: Keith Pattison

The background to this gripping but gruelling drama is South Africa’s secret involvement in Angola’s civil war.

After gaining independence, Angola was gripped for thirty years in a savage conflict between the ruling Marxist government and rebels. Across the border, Apartheid South Africa saw the Marxist MPLA as an ideological threat, feared insurgency from across the border. It certainly did not want to see Angola’s oil and diamonds in leftist control.

The South African Defence Force was sent in to support the UNITA rebels, but this was a clandestine operation, never reported to their own people, and soldiers were obliged to take a vow of silence about their involvement.

Playwright Paul Herzberg himself served on the Angolan border, so he knows about the world he is presenting, and his story has its roots in an incident involving another soldier that he heard about. This production by Joe Harmston captures that gripping reality in its starkly theatrical presentation and produces some remarkable performances from its cast.

Josh Gilmore (Austin Hardiman) is a young man from a privileged background who, since boyhood, has been trained by his father as an athlete. At 19, he is the fastest 100 metre runner in South Africa (where only white athletes run in competition). That’s where we first see him, on the starting blocks in Cape Town, but the action then ranges both back to his military service as a conscript and forward to the funeral of his father, some twenty years later in post-Apartheid South Africa.

In an Angolan village, he and Papa Louw (played by Herzberg himself), the officer he serves under, find themselves in a hut, survivors of an engagement, with a seriously wounded black whom they suspect is not your ordinary Angolan fighter. It is George Jozana (Maynard Eziashi), an ANC operative on recce from London, though they don’t know that. Louw orders Gilmore to carry the wounded man all the way to the border where he can be interrogated.

Over the days and nights of that journey, conscript and wounded prisoner bond in the times when Papa Louw is not around, his return re-imposing the vicious realities. The complex mixture of these relationships, the duties and ethics of all three, the strategic and human values raise all the complex issues of responsibility that South Africa’s (and not just South Africa’s) recent history poses.

The title is about George Jozana’s spirit waiting for his story’s close, the dead of Africa waiting for justice, revenge or reconciliation. Equally, you could change its spelling and read that central image of Josh carrying the dead weight of the black man as a metaphor for white guilt.

Each of us could interpret it more widely but this is a South African story and, in its later scenes, it brings the same allusive questioning to the whole process of the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings and their effects, though it does not handle this with the same skill. However, it offers an imaginative, ritualised closure to Jozana’s story that is theatrically effective yet leaves Gilmore still haunted by his memories.

As Gilmore, Hardiman certainly demonstrates his hardiness. One must pay tribute to the actor’s energy and determination, but he goes far beyond the demands of carrying a man along with a gun and full kit to turn in a fine performance, one that is matched by Eziashi and Herzberg.

Premièred in South Africa in 1997 and seen at Manchester’s Royal Exchange in 2002, it has had to wait a long time for a London staging. Don’t miss these actors in Harmston’s production on Simon Scullion’s set like a rock plateau in a desert; it is still timely, sometimes funny and very moving.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton