December 5, 2012

"Mies Julie" Mixes Class, Race and Politics

There may be some people who get off on watching actors simulate sex onstage but watching people pretend to get it on under the glare of a spotlight usually makes me squirmy. And yet, I was riveted by the fierce sexual encounters in Yael Farber's Mies Julie, which is ending a short run has been extended at St. Ann’s Warehouse this weekend through Dec.16.

As you’ve probably surmised from the title, the play is a riff on August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, the 1888 drama about the erotic power play between an aristocratic woman and one of her father’s servants. But in Mies Julie, which originated at The Baxter Theatre Center at the University of Cape Town, the young woman is the daughter of an Afrikaner farmer and the servant is a black man who aspires to the better life promised by post-apartheid South Africa.

The mixing of class issues with race issues is explosive in every sense of the word. Which is a big contrast to the encounter between Sienna Miller and Jonny Lee Miller in the Roundabout Theatre Company’s tepid revival of the original back in 2009 (click here to read my review of that).

I couldn’t imagine wanting to see another Miss Julie after that one but Mies Julie was such a big hit when it played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last summer that I bought tickets the moment I saw that it was being brought in as the inaugural production at St. Ann’s handsome new home (click here to read about the new space).

The new warehouse space on Jay Street looks much like the old one on Water Street, only sleeker and the bathrooms are great. Staffers were handing out celebratory champagne in the lobby before the Sunday matinee that K and I saw. But I found the play intoxicating in its own right.

That’s due in part to the change of setting and all the political and emotional connotations that come with thoughts about the new South Africa. We want to believe that life there is better for everyone now that two decades have passed since Nelson Mandela’s release and the emergence of black majority rule. But we know that’s far from the truth.

So does Farber, who both wrote and directed Mies Julie and openly exploits those contradictions. The third person in Strindberg’s play is the family’s cook who is also the manservant’s fiancée. But Farber has turned the cook into a mother figure who raised both her own son and her employer's white daughter

Farber has also added a fourth character: a spirit of the Xhosa people whose history of mistreatment still haunts South Africa—and the actions onstage. The symbolism is sometimes a bit much. As is the moody soundscape, played live by two white musicians—the brothers Daniel and Matthew Pencer, who have collaborated with Farber in the past.

And yet there are the fully committed (not to mention courageous) performances from Hilda Cronje as Julie and Bongile Mantsai as the servant John. Their nakedness extends way beyond the bared nipples and buttocks that are revealed during Farber's choreography of copulation.  

And Farber and her cast work hard to avoid the usual clichés about sex and race. They make both Julie and John equal parts aggressor and victim. The power position in their relationship, and in their couplings, changes constantly.

These encounters between these two souls trapped by circumstances beyond their control are sometimes violent, sometimes sensual and unrelentingly sad. There were, indeed, moments when I wanted to look away. But I couldn’t.

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