Edinburgh Fringe 2012
In a post-apartheid kitchen – a potent convergence point of domination, domestic practicality and untenable sadness – a single night, both brutal and tender, unfolds between a black farm labourer, the daughter of his "master" and the woman who has raised them both.
Eighteen years after the abolition of apartheid in South Africa, John makes a toast “To freedom”, but his words ring hollow. While the formal structures of apartheid may have gone, its legacy remains imprinted deep in the characters whose lives it has impacted on.
Yael Farber’s production of Mies Julie is an adaptation of Stringberg’s Miss Julie, bringing with it Stringberg’s formal structure and underpinning naturalism. The characters act under historical, cultural and environmental forces which define them and from which they are powerless to escape. Whereas in Miss Julie these were about sexual politics and class, in Mies Julie they are about race, and power and land.
Mies Julie and John have grown up as children together on Julie’s father’s farm; John’s mother, Christine, has been the cleaner and has brought up both children. Now on the night of Independence Day, they stalk around each other, Mies Julie like a cat on heat, and John, angry, in search of the love he cannot claim. She wants to go out and join in the workers’ celebrations. John entreats her not to: “You don’t know how much bitterness there is out there, you are playing with fire.” Instead she stays home, taunting John until he dances with her, and the flames are fanned until they become a fire. John has dreamed of an eagle’s nest that turns into a black mamba’s nest when he goes to put his hand in it, now he is deep in the embrace of the black mamba.
All the action takes place in Christine’s kitchen over one night, a night of tenderness and brutality, where the past won’t let the present be. The fan goes round, a sax buzzes the sound of a fly. Again and again the actors tell us that rain is coming to this dry land – there is always the promise of rain that never comes. Bit by bit an accumulation of detail creates an intense claustrophobia in which all the characters are bound. Within this internalised world, there are the signs of the outer world – the boots of the workers and Mies Julie’s father’s boots which John constantly polishes throughout the play, pouring into it all his humiliation and anger.The ghost of Christine’s mother sits at the side of the stage, from time to time stalking its outer circle, exhaling Xhosa song to bring the past firmly centre stage.
This is a past from which it seems the characters can never escape. They are bound by the land grabs of their forebearers, by power and by the distortions of a long history of prejudice and subjugation. “ Do you love me?”, Mies Julie asks John, “Or do you hate yourself?” “It’s the same thing”, he answers. There is truth here but no reconciliation.
It’s a powerful script that constantly raises questions and refuses to settle for easy answers. Bongile Mantasi as John and Hilda Cronje as Mies Julie put in phenomenal performances, with Thokozile Ntshinga giving a fine supporting performance as Christine. Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa’s traditional Xhosa music, and the accompanying music from Daniel and Matthew Pencer create a powerful background to the play.
One of those rare exceptional productions where all the elements – writing, direction performance and technical direction – combine to become more than the sum of its parts, this powerful Mies Julie lets out a cry of anguish for today’s South Africa that won’t be easily forgotten.