by Lynn on May 7, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Mies Julie

At the Enwave Theatre, Harbourfront, Toronto, Ont. Adapted by Yaël Farber from the original Miss Julie by August Strindberg. Directed by Yaël Farber. Set and Lighting by Patrick Curtis. No Costume designer credit? Music composed by Daniel and Matthew Pencer. Music performed by Brydon Bolton and Mark Fransman. Starring: Hilda Cronje, Zoleka Helesi, Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa.

A stunning adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie that transports it from Sweden at the end of the 19th century to South Africa in the 21st century. It’s given an equally stunning production that is so forceful and commanding that it withstands the onslaught of a lot of unnecessary distracting theatrical stuff.

Background. August Strindberg’s Miss Julie was written in 1888 and caused a stir when it was first produced. It’s about a rich, spoiled young woman named Julie and her flirting, aggressive attention to Jean her father’s chauffeur. Jean is sort of engaged to Christine, the cook. They are well matched in that world because they are of the same class. Julie spoils that. The sexual attraction between Jean and Julie (he calls her Miss Julie) leads to the inevitable. The morning after Christine sees them in bed. Jean realizes he and Julie can’t stay there. He suggests they run away and start a hotel—Jean has no money so it’s left to Julie to steal her father’s. Because they know Christine knows Miss Julie suggests she come along too, as the cook in this new hotel. No hope for that either. Christine lays down the law to Jean. Lots of panic on what to do. Jean gives Miss Julie his straight razor and tells her to go into the barn with it. The hint is obvious. Jean is left to polish his brutish bosses boots and be terrified when the boss rings for him. A shortish précis but you get the sense.

Miss Julie is a griping play about class differences, power, sexual attraction, duty, subservience and knowing where one belongs. Mies Julie brings the play into a larger, more brutal, emotionally throat-gripping world with all of the same themes only more so.

The Story. We are in a kitchen, on a farm in the Karoo (we were there last night with The Road To Mecca), a semi-desert in South Africa that is harsh and beautiful, desolate and unforgiving as well as cherished and held dear by the people who work it and live on it.

John is a black farm hand, the favourite of the boss who owns the place. Mies Julie is white, the boss’s spoiled, condescending daughter. Christine is John’s mother, the cook, who brought up both John and Julie. They were not playmates. The class distinctions were two rigid for that. But that didn’t stop John from loving her from afar.

It is the 20th anniversary of the people getting their freedom. They are dancing in the barn but John says they are celebrating with anger. The boss treats the farm hands as if they are squatters, living in huts on the land. He has cut off their water and heat. Those people were born there and feel they have as much right as the rich people. But we know that ‘freedom’ is not what they have. They are treated with disdain and contempt.

For this one night, the boss is away. Mies Julie wants to celebrate with the farmhands. John knows this is not right. Julie doesn’t want to hear that. There are angry exchanges. John reminds Mies Julie that his family had been working that land forever and he had as much right to be there as she did. She taunts him. She comes on to him. He retaliates, slams her down on the kitchen table and has her there. It’s brutal, quick and startling. And at a certain point, tender, loving and urgent. Both give into urges that had been simmering for years.

The next morning Christine finds them both on the table, clothes awry. What happened is obvious. Christine reminds her son how the boss is; about their place on that farm. John and Mies Julie frantically plan to run—that fantasy about starting a hotel with Christine doing the cooking. Jean appears with a rifle ready to leave. Julie brings her pet bird in a cage. The reality seeps in. There is no escape. It ends brutally.

The Production. The set by Patrick Curtis is rather spare. There is the kitchen table with some chairs; an old fridge with two buckets beside it; a delicate wooden birdcage suspended in mid air that will be twirled often. A simple lamp shade hangs down from the flies. A slow ceiling fan rotates. The room fills with a gush of mist/smokey A rumbling sound effect plays until the show stars.

There is a character called “Ancestor” who does represent all the blacks. She is majestic in formal ceremonial garb. She walks around the stage carrying something that could either be an instrument or something symbolic.

Christine walks around the stage as well. Jean enters from the audience. Lots of activity. Jean vigorously boot polishing the boss’s boots. Mies Julie enters, skin glistening with sweat. Her walk is sure, commanding and confident. She and John circle each other with energetic movements. Their body movements are almost athletic, like gymnasts flipping off chairs, jumping in the air; aggressively sliding up along each other’s body. As John, Bongile Mantsai is muscular and towers over the diminutive Hilda Cronje as Mies Julie.

That is not to say that she is not a fighter. Their sex is groping, frantic, and angry. It then turns into something sadly tender. They cling to each other, finally consummating what they both might have dreamed about.

As the production builds to the inevitable breath-taking moments, it’s fascinating to see the power shifts; first John has the upper hand, then Mies Julie, then Christine. The ever shifting dynamic is one of the many compelling things about the production. Of the three actors, Bongile Mantsai as John is the most consistent and accomplished. Rage and frustration pours out of him. He represents a whole people in a troubled country. Opportunities will never present themselves to him. He will be stuck in that place forever. As Mies Julie, Hilda Cronje is commanding but I find she’s trying too hard with everything; it’s all mannered and laboured. Her final scene, however, is staggering. As Christine, Zoleka Helesi is a mother lioness who knows the situation in that kitchen and that country. In the last scene we get a larger sense of what will happen in that country. John stands with a rifle looking defiant. We have just seen what Mies Julie has done to herself with a sickle.

Yaël Farber has directed a production that doesn’t shy away from the brutality or harshness of the story. The violence is done on stage in full view. In ninety minutes she has told the story of her country and its black population over the past twenty years that is compelling and frightening. There is a relentlessness about the force of the story as it roars to its inevitable conclusion, there is also sudden tenderness, despair, regret and resignation.

It’s to the credit of Farber’s compelling production that it manages to rise above her mystifying need to clutter it up. What’s with all that undercurrent of rumbling sound as the production progressed? What’s with the frequent billowing of mist/smoke onto the stage? Is it supposed to be dust from the Karoo? We don’t need it? We can imagine it. Besides the guy behind me began coughing almost reflexively when he saw the mist puke out from the wings. There are sound effects of dripping liquid. Is it water? Mies Julie’s blood? Why? Enough already!. It’s almost as if Farber doesn’t trust us to get it without the distracting sound and visual effects.

Comment. I would see any production that was directed/adapted by Yaël Farber. She has such a vivid imagination, a laser-beam focus and the keen ability to put her vision on the stage. I would see anything produced by the Baxter Theatre of South Africa. How fortunate then that we have Tina Rasmussen, the Artistic Director of Harbourfront’s World Stage Festival who brought them both in this muscular, compelling production of Mies Julie. So my concerns notwithstanding, this is a production that is well worth seeing.

A production by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town, in association with the South African State Theatre.

Opens: May 6, 2014
Closes: May10, 2014
Cast: 4; 1 man, 3 women
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission.


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1 Frank Tallide May 10, 2014 at 10:52 am

A gorgeous and sensitive review. Thank you, Lynn, for being so attentive to this production!