Mies Julie - John, Bongile Mantsai. Julie, Hilda Cronjé. Credit, William Burdett-Coutts 0739
There is admittedly much to admire in (white South African female) playwright and director Yael Farber’s visceral adaptation of Strindberg’s Miss Julie, but it would be churlish and disingenuous in the extreme to deny that there is also much here to be troubled by, especially for sentient viewers of colour.
In many respects, a contemporary, post-apartheid South African setting is an all too painfully obvious and predictable choice for this examination of power, inequality and revenge, and thus sadly duly falls (as if straight out of an apartheid-era, white female sexual fantasy) into a litany of clichés and debilitating racial stereotypes, be it the sexual potency of the black male (all buff, gratuitously bare-chested torso and lubricious pelvic gyrations when dancing to loud Kwaito music) or the illicit frissons of excitement engendered by the taboos surrounding inter-racial sex.
“This is a powerfully acted and aesthetically arresting production”.
Lacking in psychological veracity, as if characters’ motivations have been culled from Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, but the abridged version for beginners, the production plays up the taboos surrounding inter-racial sex in a stale and often sadly predictable way.
Moreover, the production can be (somewhat worryingly) read as an elegy for the passing of the old Afrikaaner regime, with Boers sympathetically searching for belonging and with genuine pathos questioning their place in the new South Africa, intimating as to who is really African and who really has a rightful claim to the land, when both black and white ancestors are buried on it.
Art and life, whilst separate, can and often do coalesce. Thus as John and Miss Julie enjoy brutal carnal congress, we witness 300 years of white oppression in every powerful pelvic thrust. But in a country where HIV is rampant and AIDS is the single biggest single killer, this graphic depiction of sex without condoms, despite being theatrically efficacious, is undoubtedly the height of social and sexual irresponsibility.
Where this production does succeed, however, is in illustrating the extent to which rampant racial and social inequalities are still rife in post-apartheid South Africa, albeit 18 years after the transition to black democratic rule, together with the brutality and cruelty inherent in the Boer regime.
Where I also concur with Farber is in her evisceration of the often propagated, media-friendly lie of the feel-good, Rainbow Nation. What she reminds us of is the essentially forlorn, nihilistic nature of South African society in 2013.
Mies Julie ably demonstrates the indelible scars of apartheid and chillingly depicts the insurmountable barriers which exist to this day between the races in post-apartheid South Africa
Bongile Mantsai as John the black farm labourer is magnificent, with an intensely physical, challenging yet emotionally nuanced and humane performance. Likewise Thoko Ntshinga as John’s mother Christine, the long-suffering, devout Christian servant, gives a masterclass in the stoical acceptance of one’s lot, tragically resigned to her fate.
Hilda Cronje is likewise very strong as the eponymous seductress, complete with coquettish Circean wiles, racially superior arrogance and deep ontological insecurities, when she admits, “I don’t know how to be any more.” Her taedium vitae and her acknowledgement of the existential despair born out of life in the arid Karoo are both poignant and conveyed with subtlety.
My own ideological objections to many of the depictions aside, this is a powerfully acted and aesthetically arresting production. Yet I left feeling that the copious blood symbolism and gratuitous nudity were more for the titillation of the effete, metropolitan, chattering classes who will doubtless flock to see this production for bona fide artistic reasons.
Mies Julie - Julie, Hilda Cronjé. John, Bongile Mantsai. Credit, William Burdett-Coutts 2988
Mies Julie ably demonstrates the indelible scars of apartheid and chillingly depicts the insurmountable barriers which exist to this day between the races in post-apartheid South Africa, and reminds us (should we need the reminder), that South Africa still has a long way to walk as a nation before arriving at the destination of meaningful, true freedom. If for that alone, this production should be seen.
Info: Mies Julie is at the Riverside Studios until May 19th, 2013