Mies Julie, Written & Directed by Yael Farber, Set: Patrick Curtis, Sound: Daniel & Matthew Pencer, Performed by Hilda Cronje, Bongile Mantsai, Thoko Ntshinga and Tandiwe Lungisa, Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town/ South African State Theatre, at the Octagon Theatre, University of Western Australia, Until Feb 13.
One highlight of the Perth Festival this year is a superb, emotionally devastating production of Mies Julie that adapts Strindberg’s torrid battle of the sexes to the plains of post-apartheid South Africa. There has been much discussion in Australian theatre circles lately about the rights and wrongs of rewriting canonical drama, and it’s a pleasure to see such an exemplary instance of the craft.
In Strindberg’s play, love and lust are confused – and desire itself perverted – by social forces beyond the lovers’ control, and Yael Farber’s stroke of genius is to find a complex analogue to the stultifying class system and patriarchal mores of 19th century Sweden in the legacy of racial servitude and hostility to women in the Karoo, a rural part of South Africa still dominated by the injustices of the past.
Farber’s version is set on a homestead (aptly named Veenen Plaas or ‘Weeping Farm’) owned by Julie’s father. The farm has fallen into desuetude, and evocative stage design from Patrick Curtis instils a sense of entrapment as well as the precariousness of life against the harsh land and the terrible freight of history: a treestump emerges through cracked terra cotta tiles, a birdcage swings, a fan revolves in air stagnant before a storm, and the red dust of the veldt peeks out from underneath – implacable, hungry for blood.
Both Julie’s ancestors (she is descended from the Voortrekkers) and her lover John’s (an indigenous South African) are buried in the earth nearby, sharing a common fate. And the most significant departure from Strindberg’s text involves the spirit of John’s great-grandmother (Tandiwe Lungisa), whose mournful presence and traditional songs haunt the action.
Against that spectral quietude, the lead performances rage like wildfire, savage and stunning. John (Bonglie Mantsai) and Julie (Hilda Cronje) capture Strindberg’s volatile emotional register and cruel power plays to perfection. Both actors seethe with a doomed eroticism that’s utterly compelling to watch.
Unmanned by a life of exploitation, poverty and the constant threat of violence, John’s desire for his master’s daughter keeps running into a psychological wall – one Julie is determined to break through aggressive cockteasing, demeaning John’s masculinity, and racist abuse. John, for his part, transforms from tormented to tormentor with dark inevitability. After their passion is consummated, he yields to monstrous sexual rage.
The chemistry is incredible; the sense of John and Julie not just as doomed individuals but abject embodiments of forces in South Africa that continue to wound the present, imbues the profound histrionic intensity in the performances with a broader tragic scope.
Then there’s the role of Christine, transformed in this production from John’s fiancée to his mother. A lifelong maid who has grown to love the bars of her own cage, this earthy, gentle and ultimately piteous portrayal from Thoko Ntshinga pierces to the core. It is she who has the final moment, silently reminding us that people have to find a way to go on living through the flames which consume the title character.
Yael Farber’s Mies Julie is brilliant, bold and totally engrossing theatre that melds the political and the personal into a desolating whole. It would be a great shame if Perth were the only Australian city with the privilege to witness it.