Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mies Julie: A Bloody Affair

"A storm is coming to this farm."  Never have such truer words been spoken because what follows them is a searing, violent, explosive storm that comes to this desolate part of South Africa when the white master's daughter and the black farm worker dancing around their desire and their history consummate their passions.  What befalls these characters, out of love, lust, hate, anger, frustration, politics, the past, or the future, it is a bloody affair which might actually steal the breath from your body and leave you gasping for air.

This production is an adaptation of Strindberg's Miss Julie presented by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in association with South African State Theatre.  Yael Farber wrote this adaptation and directs the production now playing at St. Ann's Warehouse.  The production is steeped in the history of South Africa but not some ponderous, academic, or theoretical history.  A living, visceral history with smells, sounds, and sights that will linger with you after the 90 minute show is over.   

In this adaptation, John (Bongile Mantsai) has grown up on this farm in the dry and dusty Karoo.  It is the land where his ancestors are buried and it is his home.  He lives there with his mother Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) who has faithfully cooked for the Boer family who own and run the farm.  Christine raised Julie (Hilda Cronje) the daughter of the master of the farm after her mother killed herself.  Despite the liberation from apartheid 20 years before, nothing seems to have changed on this farm.  The workers have nominal "freedom" only and there is a growing tension between the workers and the master.  The land, the power, and control remain in the hands of the colonial owners.  John spends his day polishing the master's boots while Julie, after a broken engagement, hangs around the farm, scantily clad, provocatively goading John.

Julie is playing with fire--but she wants to be burned.  It seems that her only escape from this life is through a complete annihilation of it.  Somehow she sees herself the Phoenix to be reborn from the ashes.  But as a child really, she has not thought this plan through.  John, by the nature of their dynamic and history must act as the adult and resist her aggressive advances.  John already endures taunts from the other workers because of his closeness to Julie.  They are both victims of their place in this society.  Both crave mothers they never had.  Both want something else for themselves--but it is not a shared dream.  It never could be because of who they are and what they have gone through in their lives.  And there's just the start of the tragedy here. 

There are a number of great things about Farber's adaptation.  One is that it takes Strindberg's framework and finds a contemporary space that suits it and yet even with Strindberg as a basis, it is a powerfully resonant modern production.  It feels very naturally adapted to the South African setting and political circumstance.  I was also drawn to the oscillating manipulation by Julie and by John.  Each have a power over the other and who is in control shifts with each moment.  Therein lies the real drama and Farber captures that tension and the underlying reasons for it with such piercing beauty.

Love or lust gets blurred by the roles society foists upon these characters.  John espouses a life long crush on Julie but he also says "I didn't touch you.  I fucked you."  Therein lies the rub (And by rub, I actually mean full on graphic sex on the kitchen table.  An old lady in the front row kept putting her hand to her mouth in making noises of audible shock.  Let's just say that the penetration scene in Spring Awakening was Disney compared to this one.)  John could be sleeping with a woman who he has always desired but there is no escaping he's also on some level revenge fucking the Boer whose family stole his land to make her bleed.  Sex, power, and history cannot be unwound from each other here.  Julie asks John, "You loved me or just hated yourself?"  John replies, "Same thing."  Cutting and beautiful. 

Even if Julie and John are symbols in this production (and the language of the play occasionally is a little too on the nose--somebody might call someone "the past" and the other person "the future"), the performances never let that get in the way of developing deeper characters.  Cronje can be the entitled, petulant brat or the broken, vulnerable child who is so desperate for love, affection, or escape.  Mantsai is both the acquiescing worker and the dominating, angry man whose own dreams seem to get further and further away from him.  Ntshinga is that voice from another generation who has moved beyond anger into a resigned acceptance that comes with age, experience, and an overabundance of pain.  Farber and her cast hold nothing back.  The raw, messy complicated feelings of South Africa's history come across with every moment in this show.

Farber's direction is smart and sharp.  Small physical gestures become so specific and powerful here.  When John takes the some pose as Julie had with his leg up on the kitchen table, after they've had sex, it means something completely from when Julie struck the same pose earlier.  By their stations, by their sex, by what has passed between them, it comes across as desire by Julie and mocking by John.  This table, where they had sex, is where John is not even allowed to eat when Julie is in the room--he sheepishly scurries away from the table in the beginning of the play and at the end he has dominated it, taken it, but it is still not his. 

The production as a whole is a sensuous experience with sonorous saxophone music, traditional African instruments, hauntings by ancestors, and a heavy cloud of smoke.  There was something beautiful and ghostly about the multitude of workmen's boots lined up at the door.  The red clay tile floor looks as if it has been there for eternity and it is not the first time someone has had to scrub blood off of it.  Rarely has a production unified all creative elements in such a way that everything feels like it is is feeding and nourishing the lifeblood of this story.   It is jarring to walk out the door of the theater, back into the streets of Brooklyn, because inside that room you feel you are in the beating heart of South Africa.




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