Edinburgh Fringe 2017
“In the smouldering kitchen of a remote South African farmhouse, 23 years after apartheid, a single night of brutality and tenderness unfolds between a black farm labourer and his white master’s daughter. The visceral struggles of contemporary South Africa are laid bare as the couple’s deadly attraction spirals out of control and they battle over power, sexuality, memory, mothers and land.”
The play is written and directed by award-winning director and playwright Yael Farber, based on August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie. Set in post-apartheid South Africa the story exposes, among other themes, the continued difficulties of young women with strict old fashioned parents and race relationships, during this time.
A mysterious woman dressed in traditional clothes of layered skirts a white shawl and a scarf tied around her head arrives in thick fog, she is to stay onstage for most of the play. This is an interesting element, is she an elder of the village or a type of soothsayer? She does not speak, but observes.
The set is very effective on this large wide stage consisting of worn wooden benches, two rows of muddy Wellington boots (suggesting a large retinue of farm staff employed by the master of the house), a stove, a long wooden kitchen table, chairs, and a small hand made bird cage hanging from the ceiling. It takes place in the kitchen of the large household and it’s quite a community in its own right.
Mies Julie, played by Hilda Cronje is the only member of the farm owning family that we meet. She has grown up amongst the help and seems to feel more for them than for her strict traditional father. John, played by Bongile Mantsai is a steadfast servant who does manual jobs on the farm. In addition Christine, John’s mother is played by Oleka Helesi and has devoted her life to the family, scrubs the floors, cleans the house and takes care of everything. All actors are excellent and Cronje and Mantsai rise to the impressive sultry and raw emotional scenes. Both actors portray characters with an emotional and complex arc in their vital, visceral performances, during the fast moving flow of dramatic events. Vividly evocative dialogue and realization about relationships brings out unexpected reactions, which is fascinating and serious.
The setting and atmosphere of a remote dilapidated farm in South Africa, is where time passes slowly and the master wields his power over the servants. It’s a microcosm of post-apartheid times, which is volatile and sensitive. Live music and soundscape plays onstage from two musicians, in clear view of the audience, music is composed and played live by Daniel and Mathew Pencer, with the addition of singer and musician, Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa. The music and sound complements the mood and further contributes to the anticipation and ominous danger hanging in the air.
Undoubtedly, the tension between Mies Julie and John is palpable, a result of Farber’s taut direction and rich language, with the actors who are completely invested in the drama. It is certainly a play that will make you think afterwards, on the themes, one’s life and that of others. It is a riveting ninety minutes and will not only entertain and enlighten but will also transport everyone to another time and another place.