Drama pulls no punches

Yael Far­ber s Mies Julie leaves its au­di­ence bat­tered and bruised, writes Robyn Sassen

Sunday Times - - REVIEW -

XPLICIT vi­o­lence and sex on stage is not the rea­son why Mies Julie has, since its de­but in July, been feted. It was con­sid­ered the pick of last year ’ s Ed­in­burgh Fringe Fes­ti­val and among the New York Times’s top 10 shows; af­ter its Joburg run it goes to Lon­don and an in­ter­na­tional tour is on the cards.

Mies Julie, cre­ated and di­rected by South African­born and -ed­u­cated Yael Far­ber, now liv­ing in Mon­treal, is crafted with the lay­ered par­al­lels that evoke Greek tragedy. It is premised on Swedish play­wright Au­gust Strind­berg’s Miss Julie, writ­ten in 1888, but wo­ven here with for­ays into South African taboos, po­lit­i­cal ghosts and is­sues that re­sound with the Na­tives Land Act of 1913 and the Im­moral­ity Act of 1927.

Strind­berg’s play rocked his so­ci­ety. It tells of crum­bling class dis­tinc­tion with sex as its weapon. But, true to its era, it is un­der­stated.

Far­ber works through 19th­cen­tury Euro­pean in­nu­endo with a prover­bial shovel — one rusted with blood and bent by his­tory. And there are mo­ments in this play that your own body goes into shock: the vi­o­lence on stage, in juxtaposit­ion with the sound­scape cre­ated by Daniel and Matthew Pencer and per­formed by Bry­don Bolton and Mark Frans­man, makes your stom­ach turn with dread.

Staged in a kitchen full of blood, both lit­er­ally and ghostly, and against the back­drop of a brew­ing highveld storm on a farm, this story will leave you bruised. And although the vi­o­lence

Eand sex might head­line your ex­pe­ri­ence of the play, its sub­tleties make it res­onate be­yond those mo­ments. The nu­ances ex­plain why it has the best crit­ics in the world ex­cited. Far­ber works with po­lar­i­ties: love and hate, life and death, old and young, black and white, hu­man and domestic an­i­mal, slave and master. She doesn’t leave them as such, but rather works the po­lar­i­ties un­til they are on a blade’s edge — un­til the two sides shriek with mad­ness into one an­other’s faces and you are not sure which is which.

Fur­ther to that, Far­ber’s eye for the po­ten­tial of a twisted re­la­tion­ship be­tween ob­jects and colour, as she ex­trap­o­lates on the dis­torted re­la­tion­ship be­tween farm labourer and farm owner, mixes so­phis­ti­ca­tion with blunt­ness. The scythe is ever present, from the first mo­ments of the play un­til its hor­ri­fy­ing de­noue­ment. The colour red in­fil­trates the work. And the mu­sic, like the sex, breaks si­lence at two clear chap­ters of the work.

As ar­tic­u­late and care­fully con­structed as this play is, so does the cast fit. The elec­tric­ity be­tween Hilda Cronje (Julie) and Bongile Mant­sai (John) ravishes the stage; in the hands of lesser per­form­ers, their characters could have de­gen­er­ated into two-di­men­sion­al­ity. They don’t.

You might not like Julie’s fiery, petu­lant ag­gres­sion as she teases the sore places in her­self and John, hav­ing been raised by his mother, the nanny Chris­tine (Thoko Nt­shinga). She is dam­aged and itchy with her de­sire for a mis­reads as an ea­gle. Land own­er­ship is cen­tral to it all; with the over­rid­ing and mys­te­ri­ous pres­ence of Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa — a tra­di­tional Xhosa mu­si­cian who plays the uhadi (cal­abash with one-string bow) and con­ducts split-tone singing — as the long dead gogo, John’s en­trap­ment is com­plete and his mo­ral chal­lenge mon­u­men­tal.

The lan­guage is im­mensely ex­plicit: Far­ber pulls no punches, her cast rock with the chal­lenges spe­cific to the is­sues they rip open, guts first. This is not an en­joy­able the­atre ex­pe­ri­ence, but it is riv­et­ing. And it starts Joburg’s the­atre year with a bang.

Pic­ture: RUPHIN COUDYZER

ELEC­TRI­CAL CHARGE: Bongile Mant­sai as John and Hilda Cronje as Julie in Mies Julie’

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