Drama pulls no punches
Yael Farber s Mies Julie leaves its audience battered and bruised, writes Robyn Sassen
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.