Back in May 2017, Susanna Clapp wrote an article for the Observer reflecting on 20 years as a theatre critic. In the article she noted that “it is clearly so much easier to slag off than to praise,” and quoted John Gross as saying that the problem with reviewing theatre was “the shortage of adjectives. Favourable ones.” I’ve been reflecting on this ever since I read it, by which I mean I’ve repeatedly called it to mind and thought: that is so very true. All the ‘good’ words risk sounding cheap and insubstantial. Equally, as Clapp explored in her longer response, they potentially make the reviewer seem overly effusive and incapable of objective analysis.
So what do you do, then, when you see a play that truly is ‘excellent’, ‘astonishing’, ‘devastating’ and deserving of all five stars and more? Yael Farber’s Mies Julie, her version of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, returns to the Edinburgh Fringe 2017 already adorned with a constellation of stars and tiptop critical adjectives. Its status as a returning hero arguably makes reviewing it unnecessary. By the power of Google, you could find numerous existing superlative-filled reviews. What do I bring to the critical party, you ask, when already 200 words deep into this text?
Only, really, to say that Mies Julie is genuinely ‘excellent’, ‘astonishing’, ‘devastating’ and whatever other insignificantly praiseworthy bit of language you want to throw at it. Farber’s production is theatre that floors you with the power of what the art form can achieve. It’s theatre that leaves you struggling to draw breath. Theatre that has you standing on the corner of Frederick Street and George Street knowing it would be inappropriate to start demonstrably crying, so instead you just keep walking thinking you could walk off the sensation of complete rawness. Theatre you need a beer after watching. Theatre that sets the bar so high you wonder if it was helpful to have seen it on day two of your stay in Edinburgh, or if it will unfavourably taint everything else you see for the rest of the week.
Re-locations and modern updates of classic plays are two a penny in theatre. It is rare, however, to have one that so substantially adds to the original text and brings far more than simply a new style to a familiar play, as Mies Julie does. The setting of the play in South Africa 23 years after apartheid places the story in a context of racial segregation and colonialism that saturates and informs nearly everything that happens on stage. To give one example, the way in which Julie (Hilda Cronje) is lustful for, yet also afraid of and insulting to, John (Bongile Mantasi) is inseparable from the connotations adjoined to black male physicality both historically and, frequently, today. Put another way, Farber is presenting the audience with a dynamic integrally different to Strindberg’s original in which class is the sole dividing factor between the two characters.
At 90 minutes long, Mies Julie maintains a taste-of-adrenaline-on-your-tongue level of tension from the very start. The recurrent mention of a storm brewing and breaking could, in a less effective piece of art, seems like too obvious a metaphor. Here, it brings to the work the feel of an epic; the echo of classic myths that rely on inherent connections between humans and the natural world. Cronje’s performance, similarly, is one of those that makes you wonder how the actor can sustain repeatedly doing it. How can she be so completely destroyed each day, I wonder, and then – what? Go back to the hotel and make a cup of tea? Line by line the character switches between inspiring sympathy and repulsion. To say she pulsates with nervous energy is an understatement. At one point she faces away from the audience and I can see her body shaking almost imperceptibly, like static on a television screen. They don’t make adjectives, favourable ones, to really describe that.
Mies Julie is on until 27 August 2017 at the Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh. Click here for more details.