Language bridges and divides

It has been 20 years since Ariel Dorfman’s dear friend, South African theatre legend Barney Simon, directed Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden. How appropriate it is then that Dorfman’s latest play, Delirium, will have its world premiere in the Barney Simon Theatre at the Market.

Delirium is set on the border between Constanza and Tomis, two fictional warring countries. The action revolves around an elderly multiracial couple played by David Dennis and Fiona Ramsay. In an attempt to instil “peace”, a border guard, played by Fezile Mpela, arrives to redraw the boundary between the two lands.

The characters, a trio of racialised identities, quote a local context, but the farcical action that unfolds is not simply an allegory for a South African situation. Rather, it can be viewed as a representation of the many places in the world that have experienced conflict over land, languages and borders. It is a play about Syria, Palestine-Israel, Ireland, Rwanda, apartheid and South Africa today, and many other places and times. Delirium’s beauty is that it is also about family and the way we create boundaries between those we love.

The play has been in the making for 10 years. In 2002, the New National Theatre of Japan broke with tradition and, for the first time in its history, commissioned a play by a foreign playwright. They asked Dorfman to write a three-character drama that dealt, in some way, with borders.

Dorfman wrote The Other Side, which opened in Tokyo in 2004. The play went on to have several productions worldwide, including a staging in Sri Lanka and the United States. It was translated into Chinese, French and Italian.


Despite this success, Dorfman was not satisfied, believing that version was not what he really set out to write. He felt something fundamental was missing — and thus he put it on hold for several years until he could figure out what needed to change.

Ultimately, he decided to do a major rewrite. He made several textual changes, but crucially he focused on language as part of what separates and joins the three characters — something he had been blocked from doing originally, perhaps because The Other Side had been written for Japan, one of the most monolingual societies in the world. The rewrites and the inclusion of an invented language ended up being a radical change that turned The Other Side into a different play.

Two versions of the new play now exist. One is called Delirio and is for US audiences, with the action situated on the border between Texas and Mexico. This version is yet to have a production. The other is ­Delirium.

So, despite its origins in The Other Side, Dorfman views Delirium at the Market as a world premiere.

He said: “This staging seems appropriate to me. I am particularly interested in the play appearing in a country that is so multilingual and tolerant of difference and that, at the same time, is racked by anti-foreign feelings and riots.”

Greg Homann, the director of Delirium, and the cast will participate in a pre-theatre discussion, Preparing for Dorfman’s Delirium. Session 4, Friday August 31, 7pm to 7.45pm, Market Theatre. To book go to the online booking form.

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