Sex and race remain a volatile mix in post-apartheid South Africa. Throw in issues of class, politics, history, family and land ownership. Bring to a boil in the intimate confines of The Cultch, and the potent theatrical chemistry of Mies Julie threatens to blow the roof off the place.
Director Yaël Farber and her extraordinary Baxter Theatre company from Cape Town make their Canadian debut here after wowing critics and audiences in London and New York with Farber's South African adaptation of August Strindberg's Miss Julie.
Mies Julie is an absolute stunner.
Revolutionary in its day, Strindberg's intense 1888 drama about an unhappy one-night affair between a young upper-class Swedish woman and her father's manservant has often been adapted and updated. In 2009 the Vancouver Playhouse staged a racialized American version set in Mississippi during the 1960s civil rights movement. Julie was white; her father's chauffeur John and John's fiancée, the cook Christine, were black.
Farber uses the same racial mix but sets her adaptation in the kitchen of a rural Afrikaaner farm in 2012. Outside, the black workers are celebrating "20 years of freedom," a freedom that has proven bitter and elusive as indicated by the news that some blacks are squatting on the farm, and by the almost ritualized work John (Bongile Mantsai) and Christine (Zoleka Helesi) are doing in the kitchen: polishing the master's boots, scrubbing the master's floors. It might just as easily be 1982. Or 1952.
Julie (Hilda Cronje) has been outside, dancing dangerously with the workers. She comes in bare-legged and barefoot, restless, sweating, pacing, goading John to come dance with her, even while reminding him that her father has sworn to shoot any black man who lays a hand on her--and then to shoot her. We never see Julie's father but his dark, looming presence is palpable. The black boots John frantically polishes symbolize his brutal power.
In Farber's version Christine is not John's fiancée but his mother, and Farber invents a fourth character simply called Ancestor. In whiteface makeup, bowing a traditional stringed instrument and chanting in Xhosa, Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa haunts the stage, a ghost of the original inhabitants of the land that, John says, Julie's people stole from his. Christine and John's ancestors are buried under the floor that Christine scrubs, keeping her rooted there.
But Julie will argue that she has deep roots, too. Four generations of her ancestors, including her mother, are also buried on the farm. She reminds John that other people occupied this land before his did. Ownership is not so simple a matter.
Neither is sex. In the tense, sparring foreplay that comprises a large chunk of the play, Julie and John reveal complicated feelings. Christine essentially raised Julie, and the two kids grew up together. As adolescents they eyed each other hungrily across the racial divide, she Mies Julie, he just a kaffir boy. Now, drunk on her father's wine, feeling horny and rebellious on a sweltering summer night, grown-up Julie isn't about to let anything stop her. And John lets his defenses down just long enough that he can't stop either.
When it comes, the sex is explosive and violent. It speaks of lust, frustration, anger, desire but probably not love. There's too much history between them, generations of it. The weight of their ancestors crushes them. Strindberg titled another of his plays--a play about marriage--The Dance of Death. That's what Julie and John seem doomed to.
They briefly fantasize about running off together but mostly revert to anger and recriminations. Although both hate their lives and long for something better, John clearly understands that there can't be a future for them even in the post-apartheid world: "Love is not possible in this mess."
But there will be blood, buckets of it. Mies Julie retains Strindberg's graphic symbolism with the aborted pregnancy of Julie's dog and the equally unhappy fate of her pet bird. Then Farber ups the ante substantially, mixing animal blood and human in the horrifically powerful ending.
When the lights came down on opening night the shocked audience was silent for a good ten seconds before giving the show a prolonged standing ovation.
The moody soundscape from onstage composer/musicians Daniel and Matthew Pencer adds significantly to the atmosphere, as does Patrick Curtis' smoky lighting plot. But this production belongs to the actors. Cronje and Mantsai are fearless in their confrontations, their physicality and nudity, and Helesi has some marvelous moments in the smaller role of Christine, although her accent sometimes makes her hard to understand.
The sprinkling of Xhosa and Afrikaans dialogue, like some of the political and geographical references, makes random details of the play inaccessible to a Canadian audience. And Farber's script, like Strindberg's, suffers from over-repetition. But its thrust is crystal clear as, in the end, are its bitter ironies. "So here we are," says John. "Free at last."