In 1985, a performance of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie marked the first on-stage occurrence of a black man kissing a white woman under the Apartheid regime. The audience reacted by standing up and walking out.
Thirty years since Sandra Prinsloo and John Kani caused such a stir, Miss Julie is still getting audiences on their feet. But this time for wave after wave of standing ovations. Having premiered at the Grahamstown Art Festival in 2012, Yael Farber’s South African-ised version, Mies Julie, has been on a whirlwind world tour, reaping awards in city after city, with a stream of five-star accolades given by publications including The Guardian, The New York Times and The Daily Telegraph.
It is hard to believe that a play written in 1888 could feel so contemporary, but Johannesburg-born Farber has taken Strindberg’s central concerns of class, race, gender power plays and lust and transferred them unhesitatingly to an Afrikaaner-owned Karoo farm, 19 years after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison.
Outside the Baxter Theatre Centre it is a wet and windy winter’s night, but inside we are transported to the arid interior of a farm kitchen. A lone ceiling fan sluggishly stirs the oppressive air as the characters languidly move about the intimately small stage, the heat of the barren land clinging to their bodies. An ancestor dressed in traditional garb and white painted face walks ghostlike through the picture. Played by musician Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa, she drifts in and out of the play, singing haunting tribal songs and playing a range of traditional instruments. The characters can never quite see her, but her presence is felt by all and adds to the general discomfort that persists throughout. Before the first word is even uttered the tension in the air is already palpable. You know that a very big storm is brewing.
The lone white girl on the farm, Julie (Hilda Cronje) is drunk and bored on this night of celebration. Outside the farm workers are partying, but there are clear undercurrents of anger and bitterness in their festivities. John (Bongile Mantsai) sits in the Karoo kitchen polishing Meneer’s boots – an action to which he retreats when the exchange between him and Julie gets too intense. As it does, again and again.
Cronje inhabits the character of Julie bravely, bringing a prowling sensuality to this dark character plagued by a life of isolation, domestic violence and unfair rules imposed by her father. Though we never see her father he is very much present in the exchanges between Julie, John and John’s mother Christine (Thoko Ntshinga). He is clearly not respected so much as he is feared and his iron rule has taken its toll on Julie, whose disconcerted glances and defensive tone speak of a girl who has seen too much. She has a feverish insanity in her eyes and a childish mission in her mind. She taunts and insults John to provoke a reaction from him, demanding that he dance with her, ordering him around, seducing him with threats and promises while he, polishing boots, warns her that she is playing with fire. Eventually, inevitably, her drunken insolence becomes the spark that ignites her own self-destruction.
Yael Farber’s expertly pitched dialogue creates a wave-like motion of tension building and collapse. In the first emotional breakdown we see a sad truth in Christine, John’s mother, as the past once again becomes too heavy for her to bear. A profound and tender moment follows between mother and son, but when Julie walks in, a defeated resignation washes over Christine as she resumes her role as household cleaner. Instead of releasing some tension, this sets the stage for John and Julie to dig deeper into the past, deeper into their forbidden feelings, deeper into the darkness. Explosive arguments rip open holes of beautiful vulnerability, through which old wounds resurface, leading to more explosive arguments. The two dance continually on a knife’s edge between past and present, between black and white, between fear and love. And though their moves are gracefully choreographed, they often slip from this knife’s edge and the resulting wounds cut deep.
The constant nervous energy of the two leads reveals itself in movements just a hair’s breadth from dance and with its arthouse-quality sound and lighting, the play feels like an art film come to life in the intimate setting of the Golden Arrow Studio. Throw in the reality of the sweat, spit, blood and tears and the result is overwhelming.
This is theatre at its best and most brutal. Alongside personal and domestic issues, Mies Julie is unequivocally political and claws at raw questions about land ownership, past injustices and racial roles without providing solutions, all the while prodding at the fact that growth does not take place when we are in a state of complacency.
Expect a one-way ticket out of your comfort zone and a haunting glance into issues that still afflict the South African psyche. Mies Julie is not an easy play to watch but it is gloriously beautiful, utterly unforgettable and unmistakably important.
Mies Julie is showing at the Baxter’s Golden Arrow Studio until 7 July. Shows start at 6.30pm.