Written and directed by Yaël Farber. Based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg. Produced by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Capetown in association with the South African State Theatre. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Wednesday, March 26. Continues until April 19
Mies Julie is as essential as blood.
In this South African production, writer and director Yaël Farber reimagines August Strindberg’s problematic 1888 classic, setting it in contemporary South Africa on Freedom Day, the anniversary of the election of Nelson Mandela.
As in the original, Julie is the daughter of a landowner—in this case a Boer farmer who is trying to force black squatters off territory that they claim his family stole. After attending a squatters’ dance, the updated Julie flirts with and insults John, her father’s favourite black servant. The two eventually have sex on the kitchen table.
Shocking in its day, Strindberg’s version now looks antique, largely because of its misogyny. Strindberg clearly frames feminism as a threat to the natural order: the characters recall a time when Julie’s mother ran the farm and the crops failed.
Farber takes Strindberg’s setup and goes deeper with it. Christine, who cooks for Julie’s family, is John’s (Jean’s) fiancée in the Strindberg, but here she is John’s mother: he is tied to the land through her. And his ancestors emerge from beneath the kitchen’s concrete floor. A commanding, ghostly presence, singer and musician Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa Ukhokho stalks the kitchen, her face daubed white, singing in a voice that swings between the sweet and the otherworldly.
And Farber paints both Julie and her distant—and eventually suicidal—mother as victims as well as beneficiaries of the Boer regime.
Julie is, however, still bat-shit crazy, especially when we first meet her, and that’s a problem. She’s so vulgar in her drunken flirtation with John and such an imperious jerk as she teases and humiliates him that, for a long time, it’s hard to buy into the erotic charge—never mind the conflicted love—between them. Does the character really have to lie on the table and arch her back like a cat in heat right off the top, and why is she wearing a semitransparent sarong around the farm?
Still, there’s so much integrity in this production that it’s impossible to take your eyes off it. Hilda Cronje plays Julie and her delivery is sometimes affected. (“It’s my. Table, too. And I said. Sit.”) But there’s no denying the force of the raw honesty that fuels her performance. And after sex has opened Julie to the possibility of love, Cronje’s work is heartbreaking.
Zoleka Helesi’s Christine is monumental and moving. Her response when she sees her ancestor’s ghost is enough to make you believe in them.
And Bongile Mantsai is transcendent as John. He fills every nuance of the character at every scale—from the large movement, which was influenced by Pina Bausch, to the tiny flickerings of attentive listening.
From a faulty classic, Farber has crafted a bold vessel with Mies Julie. And she and her company have filled it to the brim.