Review: Yael Farber’s Mies Julie at Riverside Studios

Yael Farber’s Mies Julie which will soon  ends its very successful run at the Riverside Studios in London explores fraught but familiar territory in South African drama – the underlying sexual tension in the Master/Servant dynamic; fixed in philosophy by Hegel and made flesh by various colonial adventures. Yael Farber’s play is an adaptation of an original play by August Stringberg on which she performs a metaphorical disembowelment, reconstituting as a raw, and violent drama of love, sex and land in the Afrikaner heartland.

Visually the set and movement of the play are stunning and evocative – all sides of the stage naked to the audience, recalling the vulnerability of the inhabitants of the land to the elements. Mies Julie packs a powerful punch, with Hilda Cronje as the eponymous Mies Julie moving across the stage with taut, sensuality and repressed sexuality – echoed in the languid muscularity of Bongile Mantsai’s performance. Both actors excel in providing the physical dexterity many of the scenes require, not least in the raw, sex scenes that offer as much to the eye as they highlight the nature of forbidden dalliances to be all the more intense for being verboten. That said, this play is set 18 years after apartheid. The propelling drama of racial sexual tension feels – despites its power – at times dramatically questionable. The anxiety over race and sex a little overwrought, albeit well expressed by the actors. Hilda Cronje’s high drama as Mies Julie may not be to everyone’s taste, but the chemistry between the two leads, a painfully dignified, subservient shuffling performance as the mother by Thoko Ntshinga as Jean’s mother, and the haunting presence of a traditional sangoma add to the otherworldly and erotic charge of the play.

Mies Julie does a good job of bringing some of South Africa’s thorny racial and land issues to the fore. Poignantly, Jean’s mother, played by Thoko Ntshinga remains rooted to her kitchen floor because it’s where her ancestors are buried – yet the promise of liberation in which sexual freedom for black and white to fuck should also mean the freedom for black to inherit from white is viciously disavowed when Mies Julie tells he can’t inherit her land by impregnating her and tying her back into the generations. Mies Julie doesn’t settle for easy answers, on the land question, but neither does it provide any compelling new insight into the bind that South Africa finds itself in. The dilemmas posed by some of the play’s fraught examination of land and race perhaps mask the bigger question of class, and the financial exclusion in the experience of the new South Africa. This reviewer is told that land and race, alongside stories about South African returnees from the front in Angola in the 1970s wars are popular topics in current South African theatre, yet there remains lots of other territory to be explored, not least the ambiguous experience of the new black South African middle-class, and its relationship to some of the people left behind following Apartheid demise.

Perhaps Mies Julie gives its own answer to what must be done.  Jean doesn’t follow the same atavistic path of Julie’s by killing himself instead of face the white master, instead he dons the master’s boots, and goes out into the night to face an uncertain battle – in the end this production creates a  certain ambiguity about the questions it raises – along with a raw and visceral visual power that’s very welcome on the London stage.

LAND HUNGER: A DRAMATURG’S RESPONSE TO YAEL FARBER’S MIES JULIE:  RASHEEDA NALUMOSO 

Rasheeda Nalumoso, DramaturgI am struck by the continuation of what is becoming a powerful body of metaphors in Yael Farber’s work that sees Mies Julie picks up where the dialogue of her 2004 production Molora left off. Bongile Mantsai was born to a township. The turbulent legacy of Apartheid is a living politics negotiated everyday by South Africans and by the very performers of the Mies Julie production. Hilda Cronje returns to her homestead farm during rehearsal breaks of the play.

The connection between people and place is a living, breathing and writhing ‘black mamba’ that Farber grapples with.  It is bodily and all consuming. ‘My womb… your land grab’ snarls Mies Julie. For the doomed John and his Mies Julie the land oppresses as much as it is prized. Mies Julie is haunted by the black ‘veld’ outside. Bleakly stating ‘I don’t know how to be anymore’ the void and search to articulate what is still not yet articulated is the nightmare that haunts the Afrikaner in a Yael Farber production. Mies Julie is at once seduced and inhibited by the farm she calls home, choked by her surroundings and the weight of her inheritance.

Watching Mies Julie I am reminded of the staccato and assured, Dorothy Ann Gould’s Klytemnestra opening Molora with the rasping infamous words attributed to the watchman in Aeschylus: ‘a great ox… as they say…stands on my tongue’. Characters are continually unable to speak out, inhibited by their surroundings. Perhaps to own nothing is the best state as John and Mies Julie realise, at once set free and hampered by their inability to put wealth to their name. Post apartheid Julie will inherit wealth, while Jean is a dependent, working on a homestead without ownership. With the South African government failing to meet its 2014 targets of land expropriation and with no coherent policy on how to re-balance century old imbalances, the question of land ownership in Mies Julie, is pivotal. The spectre of Zimbabwe looms above any discussion of land as a reminder of how fragile race relations can falter if questions over land are left to fester unresolved.

Yael Farber’s previous play Molora ends on an adaptation of Aeschylus’ famous quote in Agamemnon where emphasis is largely placed on the interference of the gods: ‘There is, I think, a grace that comes by violence from the gods…. It is not however the Gods that can change things for South Africa. Peace can easily be broken. It is here that the crux of Bongile Mantsai’s empassioned cry in Mies Julie ‘Welcome to the new South Africa…that left us exactly where we began’ begins to problematize a question around the South Africa we see onstage. The long-suffering John has the daily task of polishing Mies Julie’s father’s shoes. Boots become a metaphoric stand in for the non-presence of Mies Julie’s father – a long line of boots line stage right, that John will never finish polishing. It’s hardly a victorious moment that sees John don these boots in the final closing moments of the production, rather a resolved continuation of the struggle for land and power.

Mies Julie is at London’s Riverside Studios until 19th May 2013

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