Yael Farber’s Mies Julie, an unflinching adaptation of the Victorian shocker Miss Julie, clenches you tightly and doesn’t let go during its 90-minutes of fever-dream performance art staged at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre.
Farber’s Julie, familiar, yet fiercely deviating, recontextualizes August Strindberg’s depiction of Victorian class and gender conflict as an allegory for post-colonial desolation, transplanting the action to present-day South Africa and stirring in all the acrimony, resentment and rage that attend to the wreckage of colonialism and racial apartheid.
The end result is a thrilling, hyper-charged physical showcase of passionate performances from the two leads (Bongile Mantsai, Hilda Cronje), however undermined by a strained, overwrought script void of character development.
Far removed from Strindberg’s cloistered chambers, this Julie is set within a sensual dream fog on the sweltering veldt, against the backdrop of the heavily resonant Freedom Day, the celebration of the end of apartheid. The characters pace the lived-in kitchen set designed by Patrick Curtis like wild animals in heat. The charge in the air is like an impending storm on the verge of breaking, promising a reaping of Biblical fury.
The mood is intensified by Daniel and Matthew Pencer’s pulsating musical soundscape, in collaboration with the spellbinding Xhosa musician, Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa. Costumed in tribal dress and representing the ancestral past, she lingers around the action, quietly singing, a reminder of the land’s bloody history and a portent of violence to come.
The action builds as a macabre tango between Julie, the white Boer daughter of a landowner known only as “the master” and “my father,” and the black laborer John, her father’s favorite “kaffir boy.”
In a note of inspiration, the character of the cook, Christine, portrayed with deep honesty and gravity by Thoko Ntshinga, is changed from John’s ineffectual fiancée to his mother, the better to place her within the generational fabric of an entwined plantation-family. We learn that it’s been Christine’s hands that have reared Julie, whose own mother committed suicide, and Julie and John grew up as playmates, fatally drawn one to the other.
Cronje fearlessly immerses herself in a raw, explosive performance as the doomed, self-destructive Julie. The writing lets her down, as we never know what to make of her as a real person; she only exists as a hateful, petulant sadist, disgusted by men she lasciviously taunts. It can and has been argued that the entirely unsympathetic virgin-whore Julie is a product of Strindberg’s misogyny.
Closes November 24, 2013
450 7th Street NW
1 hour, 30 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $50 – $65
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Both actors are kinetically charged. Neither stops moving as they circle each other in a fluid dream-like choreography of control and abuse.
The flip side is that like a dream, substance is suspect and fleeting. The characters are not quite three-dimensional, especially the bereft Julie. So in the end, when the smoke clears and the stage is awash in blood and horror, you don’t really care. Instead, you’re aware of the mechanics behind theatrical shock value. The same can be said of the sex, which has a clichéd pornographic quality, in tone and in intellectual tenor. The black man avenging the sins of the past by raping the cracked white girl is one of the oldest and cheapest clichés.
Mies Julie does present an instructive lesson: When Strindberg’s Miss Julie was performed in South Africa in 1985, the play’s cross-color kiss sparked a national outcry. According to the narrative of Mies Julie, twenty-seven years later, South Africa’s wounds are just-thinly scarred over and the memory of violently enforced racial segregation survives. “Welcome to the new South Africa, Mies Julie, where miracles leave us exactly where we began,” John tersely spits.
Mies Julie . written and directed by Yael Farber. Featuring Bongile Mantsai, Hilda Cronje, Thoko Ntshinga and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa. Set and lighting design: Patrick Curtis. Costumes: Birrie le Roux. Music composed and performed by Daniel and Matthew Pencer. Produced by The Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in association with the South African State Theatre. Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company . Reviewed by Roy Maurer.
David Siegel . ShowBizRadio
Kate Wingfield . MetroWeekly
Peter Marks . Washington Post
Chris Klimek . City Paper
Malcolm Lewis Barnes . Washington Times
Elliot Lanes . MDTheatreGuide
Elizabeth Bruce . BroadwayWorld
Sydney-Chanelle Dawkins . DCMetroTheaterArts
John Stoltenberg . MagicTime!
Sophie Gilbert . Washingtonian