Review – The gathering storm

2012-09-05 11:03

The last piece of theatre I saw directed by Yael Farber was SeZaR – a version of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar shot through with African idiom.

It was a powerful, unforgettable piece, though in parts flawed too.

Mies Julie, which premiered at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, has the same sense of foreboding, the same visual power and is Farber’s remix of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie.

Farber has relocated the action to a dusty Karoo farmhouse kitchen.

The players are waiting for the storm to break – which storm becomes the question.

Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) is the domestic worker and a descendant of the land’s original dwellers.

She scrubs the kitchen floor while listening to the whispers and laments of her ancestors lying beneath the flagstones.

Her desire to unearth the bones and air the historical horrors of her people is mirrored in the damaged relationship between her son John (Bongile Mantsai) and the Mies Julie (Hilda Cronje) of the title.

They are the children of war and repression.

John is a labourer who has watched as his mother Christine raised another woman’s child – spent her time with that child at his expense.
Yet he is strangely, violently, tenderly drawn to the “maneer’s” child, Julie.

Julie is a troubled, unloved young woman who begins by toying with John, but soon the emotions, the past and the potential futures that colour their existence become too much and a storm far more violent than anything Mother Nature could imagine is unleashed.

Mies Julie was first staged in 1985 in apartheid South Africa – with John Kani and Sandra Prinsloo shocking audiences with their cross-colour kiss. That shock is long gone in contemporary South Africa.

The colour of the participants is only relevant in a historical context – instead the issues are those of power and with gender violence and criticism of the patriarchy foremost in many minds it is these issues that also get shook up in Mies Julie.

The couple – childhood friends and enemies – rage against how their families’ respective histories doom them to their current stalemate.

They also powerfully represent how women are traded in society, this might be a by-product of Strindberg’s original story, but what makes a piece written in a specific socio-political reality relevant beyond it is the ability for its themes to shift and change to reflect the concerns of the next generation.

This one does.

The performances are riveting – most particularly Mantsai – and Farber builds the sense of a gathering storm excruciatingly slowly, drawing the audience in before rebuffing them with shocking violence.

When Mies Julie had ended and the shocked silent audience filed out, the stage bore the signs of the bloody mess the play had delved into – that neat Karoo kitchen was soiled and dishevelled, much like the characters and those they represent in our ravaged society.

» Mies Julie is on at Pretoria’s State Theatre from today until October 7.

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