Speaking of never-ending conflict, one of the more powerful pieces of theatre I’ve seen recently is Mies Julie, the South African adaptation of Strindberg’s classic by Yael Farber, currently on stage at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.
Strindberg’s Miss Julie is a proto-Genet hothouse of sex and class conflict. Set in the kitchen of the titular character’s father’s estate, the four characters are Julie, daughter of the house, Jean, a groom, who has loved (or merely lusted) after Julie since childhood, Christine, the cook and Jean’s fiancee, and the Count, Julie’s father, who never appears but who hovers over all the other characters like a malevolent miasma. The drama traces the lustful dance between Jean and Julie that is also a contest for supremacy, which ends, inevitably but melodramatically, with Julie’s suicide.
Farber has made the miasma literal, starting her play with a fog machine and the eerie chant of an African ghost (Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa, whose throat-singing is the most terrifying part of a fiendishly effective soundscape). She has moved the setting to contemporary South Africa, a parched and poor rural area of the country where, nearly two decades after the end of apartheid, blacks and Boers alike see how little has changed in essential economic relations, and are acutely aware of the growing potential for violence to force that change in the most direct but destructive way. That ever-present aura of violence makes what comes off as melodramatic and exaggerated in Strindberg feel only too plausible and real.
As well, John and Julie’s dance is far more explicit than Jean and Julie’s in Strindberg, with both the sexual consummation and the suicide performed on stage. Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai, who play the central roles, start their dance already at a fever pitch, muscles taut, sweat dripping from their faces. Taking turns leading, and oscillating between love and hate, the waves build progressively from that initial height, so that both bloody events feel like authentic, not faked climaxes. It’s a testament to both actors’ stamina that they can even make it through all 90 minutes.
Apart from the setting, the other big change Farber makes is that Christine (played by Thoko Ntshinga) is now John’s mother, not his fiancee. Strindberg’s Christine stood for a certain kind of patience – the Christian freedom that mundane servitude cannot constrain. Farber’s Christine still stands for patience – and for Christianity – but it is patience waiting for resolution of an literal earthly conflict, a conflict over land, between black and white, between a suppressed past and a decaying present. Christine’s ancestors are buried under Julie’s kitchen floor, and it is this tie that binds her to the land, and that makes it impossible for Julie and John to run away together to Cape Town and start a new life, free from the conflicts of the past and of her father’s tyranny.
In the end, John becomes an avatar of the violence we’ve seen building in the background, felt murmuring under the floor, the entire play. This, to me, is the darkest suggestion of the drama. Not that the Julies of South Africa are dancing to their deaths – a yearning for self-annihilation was obvious in her from the start – but that the Johns will be compelled to declare themselves their murderers by the very Christian patience of their mothers.
This tour-de-force production has just been extended to December 16th. Catch it while you can.