“I walked out of the audition feeling as if I had just had sex with a stranger.”
Was this said to me by someone remembering the heyday of the 60s avant-garde; an audition for Dionysus in ’69 at The Performance Group, perhaps? No, I was talking with Hilda Cronje, who is playing the title role in Mies Julie. The production, from The Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town, in association with the South African State Theatre, is in residence at Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre following runs not only in South Africa, but internationally, including London, Edinburgh, and New York City, where it appeared on just about every one of last season’s top ten lists. Writing about that New York run in The Washington Post, Peter Marks described it as the “most meaningful evocation for Americans of the country’s racial politics since the heyday of the plays of Athol Fugard.”
After runs that were sold out and extended, it will surely be a hot ticket for a show that is itself so hot that, we are warned, it is only appropriate for audiences 16 and above, as the description of that audition might indicate. On one level, the play is a searingly intimate mating dance between two characters erotically drawn to each other despite (and perhaps a little because) a tryst between them involves challenging societal taboos. In The New York Times, Ben Brantley began his review: “The temperature never stops rising in Yael Farber’s Mies Julie, a play for which ‘scorcher’ is way too mild a description.”
Forgive me if you are reading Mies Julie and presuming that my spell check function isn’t working well. No, this isn’t a South African production of Strindberg’s classic, long one-act Miss Julie. Writer-director Yael Farber has taken the Strindberg scenario and created a new play set in contemporary South Africa, one that retains very few lines from Strindberg.
There are inherent opportunities for drama in that country’s recent history of apartheid and the struggle against it, so it might be assumed that it was during that era that the play was set. However, it is the red-hot present, not the recent past, that provides the context for the reimagining of this classic.
Bongile Mantsai, the play’s other lead, discussed the contemporary context and the way it allows the piece to explore current, “burning issues.” Universal enfranchisement 20 years ago revolutionized the country’s political culture. However, the white minority’s control over so much of the country’s resources, particularly land, and its implications for the lives of a recently politically empowered, but still economically oppressed, majority is a problem that wasn’t resolved with the expansion of democracy. Had Farber set her play during the apartheid era, the relationship between Julie, the aristocratic daughter of a landowner, with her father’s manservant, Jean, would have had obstacles as, if not more, formidable than the class obstacles in the Strindberg original. Instead, Farber’s John (renamed from the Strindberg and played by Mantsai) theoretically has opportunities which wouldn’t have been available to him had he come of age a generation earlier.
In fact, a 1985 production of Miss Julie in South Africa that featured a white Julie and a black Jean is legendary enough to be referenced by actress Cronje without context, as if knowledge of it is a given. Though controversial, it wasn’t shut down by a regime notorious for censorship regarding the sensitive subject of relations between the races. Strindberg, on the other hand, had to wait almost 20 years between writing Miss Julie and its first production, so incendiary was it for its time.
Mantsai called these unresolved issues involving land and race “a wound people are not talking about a lot” and “very challenging.” He described South African audiences as “knowing the story you are talking about.” He described audiences who said that they were changed by seeing the play and needed to go home and digest it and think about its implications. Cronje remarked that it will always be difficult for South Africans to deal with their past.
It’s interesting, then, to consider the international success the play has had. While the actors discussed the difference between performing the play at home and abroad, I was struck by what seemed like a contradiction. At the same time that they described how uniquely immediate it is to a South African audience, they also described how deeply it resonates in countries wildly different. Mantsai described South African audiences as responding more vocally than any other, audibly gasping at places. Later, he told me about his surprise, touring Ireland, when someone told him that the play reflected the history of Galway “exactly.” He said that everywhere they go, the play “talks to people in a different way.”
Perhaps as impressive as it is for a company from Capetown to achieve a breakout international hit is the fact that life has been breathed into a classic that is notoriously difficult to find satisfying in production. The last high-profile attempt was reportedly underwhelming, a Broadway revival starring a pair of movie actor Millers (Sienna and Johnny Lee) in an adaptation by British playwright Patrick Marber (Closer).
The success of any production or adaptation of Miss Julie depends heavily on the chemistry between the leads, which brings us back to that audition. Mantsai told me that he was, “unfortunately,” one of only a few males who was reading opposite many females on the day Cronje came in for her audition. When he read with her, he said, the chemistry was immediate, there was fire, there was something different with her. They were given exercises and, with Cronje, there was electricity, she was “always there. I could handle her body, and she mine.” Afterwards, they asked each other “Are you okay?”; “Yes, are you?”
Cronje’s perspective regarding the audition’s “exercises” was different. She told me that, during that audition, Farber called Mantsai over and privately asked him to make some kind of adjustment. Cronje doesn’t know what that adjustment was; she has never asked and has never been told. “Maybe at the end of it all, he’ll tell me.”
Both Cronje and Mantsai speak glowingly of Farber and describe their devotion to her, the project, and the process. Mantsai spoke of the faith Farber inspires in her actors, about the comfort she provides for them, and offers a gorgeous metaphor: often, as an actor working with a director, you are only invited to taste the food; but, with Farber, you are invited to cook with her. Farber is still “hands on, still rehearsing, keeping it fresh” as the tour continues.
Mantsai had trained as a dancer. He told me that he is often asked about how choreographed the intensely intimate scenes are. His response is, “Not at all. We just know each other’s bodies.” For her part, Cronje described herself not as a dancer, but as an actor who can move. She won’t be auditioning for Cats anytime soon, she told me.
Cronje spoke about her experience giving such an intense performance. The long runs of the show, the two-show days, become exhausting. However, in this role, she is “in my element,” she leaves the theatre “on a high,” and, ultimately, it inspires, rather than exhausts. It is “absolutely” the highlight of her career.
Mantsai called the New York run his “best experience ever.” The run began just after what he described as “the disaster” (Hurricane Sandy), so he was introduced to the city while it was in extremis, and he was impressed that, within a week, it felt to him as if the city had returned to some kind of normalcy. The production also opened the new space for the recently displaced and relocated St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, and he described that experience as “blessing the new theatre with the story.” In response to the piece, as those top ten lists attest, they “just had love,” as Mantsai described the critical and audience response to what became a very hot ticket and an extended run. Cronje took to the city so much that (spurred by an ICM contract) she will relocate to it.
This will be the first visit to Washington for both actors. Having assured Cronje, who was packing in South Africa for the trip when we spoke, that it was a mild Autumn in DC, I hope that she is warm enough during her stay. She tells me that, as a South African, anything under 10 degrees is cold. (I presume that she is referring to a Celsius scale.) Both actors have been grateful for the few months break they’ve just had from Mies Julie, but are now anxious to revisit the piece and bring it to D.C. (A run in Boston follows.) As Mantsai put it, “Everyone is hungry now to come to Washington.”
Both actors spoke enthusiastically about the theatre scene in Capetown. Cronje called it thriving, exciting, vibrant, challenging. When I asked her about government support, her enthusiasm waned. Government support is “not the greatest,” comes only from lottery revenue, and is directed away from smaller and rural activity toward big name, existing companies, presenting a challenge to the “young practitioners” who she describes as “quite inspired.”
Cronje told me that she was fortunate to have lived and grown up on a farm in rural South Africa, giving her a perspective which, Mantsai concurred, was important during rehearsal and development of the piece. She spoke about the intrinsic love of the land felt by all South Africans, who “share the same heart, where we are from,” and who will “never have anywhere else to go.” Although the empathic attitude from an artist as obviously open-minded as she is doesn’t solve all of the thorny challenges the play explores, and although she acknowledges the vulnerable state of the country’s new democracy, she is “very hopeful and positive that South Africa will stay on the right track.”
Mies Julie is on stage at the Lansburgh theatre until Nov. 24, 2013. Details and tickets