Reviewed by James Karas
Mies Julie is a remarkable reworking of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie by Yaël Farber for South Africa’s Baxter Theatre Centre and it received an outstanding production at the Athens Festival.
Farber takes the basic plot of Miss Julie and transfers it to post-apartheid South Africa. He adapts and enriches the play while keeping the basic plot outline of a rich woman’s relationship with someone who is racially different and socially inferior.
John (Bongile Mantsai) is a muscular young farm labourer who is almost a slave on a farm owned by the father of Julie (Hilda Cronjé). The two have a complex relationship which involves at the very least passionate carnal attraction and deep-rooted resentment.
The play takes place in a kitchen where John’s mother Christine (Zoleka Helesi) is the cook. She is dependent on the white farmer for her living but she is also the only person who showed any affection to Julie while she was a child. There is a rack of boots in the kitchen and John’s job is to polish them.
The situation is made even more intense and explosive by the issue of the ownership of the land. The whites own the land and they have deeds to prove it but where is their moral authority to use the land and to keep the blacks as their servants? We are reminded several times that the play takes place during the celebrations of Freedom Day.
This is a richly-textured and highly dramatic plot but Farber who also directs the production eschews the melodramatic aspects of the story by using the Brechtian epic theatre method of distancing the audience. He has a saxophonist and a recorder player on the stage as well a black woman playing a stringed instrument on stage. The baritone notes of the saxophone and the low foreboding music of the string instrument are an almost continuing obbligato to the action.
Cronjé as Mies Julie is a restless woman, dressed provocatively, as she walks around the kitchen, lies languidly on the kitchen table, performs several pirouettes and engages in a sexually incendiary dance with John. She is a complex woman, full of passion, aware of her class superiority, knowing that Christine was the only person who showed her any affection in her childhood and inexorably drawn to John.
John faces similar conflicts but he is at the other end of the social scale. She orders him to kiss her foot as she deals with her attraction and repulsion. He is equally attracted and repulsed by her. The sexual encounter between the two is an extraordinary piece of emotional expulsion and violence. The simulated sex is only a shade away from real. There is no Brechtian distancing in that scene.
Tandiwe “Nofirst” Lungisa plays the string instrument and is a type of ancestral spirit that hovers over the play. Helesi is the classic mother who sees and knows a great deal but is unable to control the situation.
This is a powerful production with outstanding acting and directing. The sexual encounter between John and Julie is not the most violent scene in the production. The final act of Mies Julie is about as gory and shocking as you want to see. It is staged brilliantly.
A word about the Athens Festival. If all you hear about Greece is financial gloom and doom, you are reading the wrong papers. During June and July there are over thirty theatrical productions in theatres around Athens and in Epidaurus. In addition to classical Greek plays, you can see theater companies from across Europe. There are concerts, dance groups, film festivals even Vietnamese circus.
If that sound too arcane, you can see Kiss Me, Kate, Tosca and even Arden of Faversham. How’s that for wide ranging choices!
Mies Julie by Yaël Farber based on August Strindberg’s Miss Julie was performed om June 11-13, 2015 at Peiraios 260, Athens, Greece. www.greekfestival.gr