Reviews Edinburgh Published 10 August 2012

Mies Julie

Assembly Hall ⋄ until 27th August 2012

Strindberg in South Africa.

Colin Bramwell

Yael Farber’s Mies Julie is described in the Fringe programme as an ‘adaptation’ of Strindberg’s play, which is true if slightly misleading. The play itself has not just been modified to serve a new surrounding, it has completely re-imagined in light of – and made subject to – the material realities of modern-day South Africa. Which is not to say that the narrative structure of Miss Julie has been pilfered solely for effect, in fact, the different socio-political context only heightens the abiding concerns of Strindberg’s original, and invests them with a vicarious urgency.

It’s hard to imagine that any other country could absorb Miss Julie into its national psyche so successfully. On paper, the incorporation of racial issues into a play that already extensively explores the power dynamics between gender and class sounds like thematic overkill. In practice, adding race to the pot vastly increases the depth of the original play. For instance, Christine and John both undergo a welcome transformation, becoming more rounded as characters. Strindberg, in his preface to the original play, described Christine as a ‘female slave’, ‘like an animal, unconscious of her own hypocrisy’.

He justified himself with the following, which is worth quoting in full, as it illustrates the chief attitudinal difference between Miss and Mies‘If some people have found my characters abstract, that is because ordinary people are to some extent abstract when pursuing their professions; which is to say, they lack individuality and show only one side of themselves while performing their tasks, and as long as the spectator feels no need to see them from several sides, my abstract depiction is rather correct.’

Certainly Strindberg’s viewpoint on the subject is still fairly extreme. Now, an audience would probably assume that there were hidden sides to a person that may not manifest themselves through their work—we clamour to think of even minor characters as sympathetic humans.

In Strindberg’s original Christine is unlikeable because she is unwilling to transcend her social standing. In Farber’s version, her mother is buried under the kitchen, so her work is intimately rooted in her identity, even to the extent that the two become indissoluble.

Indeed, it is this quandary between internal and external modes of oppression that is so brilliantly expressed by this production. Each of the characters are caught in their own interlocking double-binds, and there is no clear way out other than the utopian hotel of John and Julie’s shared fantasy, or the mixed-race baby in Julie’s stomach, whose existence is never confirmed anyway. The production thankfully avoids the pitfalls of proselytizing on ethnic or gendered lines, although it is not afraid to point out that entrenchment in one’s camp can lead to ugliness (one thinks of Julie ordering John to kiss her foot, or John’s proposal to expel all the Boers from their land).

Perhaps it is unfair to reduce the experience to the communication of these kinds of ‘points’. If Mies Julie discusses South Africa’s inability to move past apartheid modes of thinking, it also charts every raging permutation of that incoherent route to impasse through the dialogue between John and Julie. Even despite the very relevant commentary on South Africa’s national identities, it is the sheer vivacity of this central pair which drives this production forward. Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje are visibly panting by the end—the intense physicality of their performances is a sight to behold.

Mantsai oscillates between utter weakness and utter power throughout, whereas Cronje’s change from powerful seductress to victim is admirably subtle. As mawkish as it sounds, the fact that they can put themselves through it every day for a month boggles the mind.

There was, perhaps, a problem with the ever-mounting tension that may have been exacerbated by a constant ambient soundtrack which slowly increased in menace throughout. It is hard to see how this could have been surmounted given the weighty subject matter. Don’t let the utter lack of levity dissuade you from seeing this show. We absolutely need theatre that is politically relevant, ambitious, and proud of its sheer lumbering gravitas.

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Colin Bramwell is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

Mies Julie Show Info


Produced by Baxter Theatre Centre, South African State Theatre

Directed by Yael Farber

Cast includes Thokozile Ntshinga, Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje

Link http://www.assemblyfestival.com/

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