Theatre Review: Mies Julie is a potent mix of race, class and sex set in South Africa

The Singapore Repertory Theatre presents Mies Julie. When wars on race, class and sexuality have been fought, with some concessions won and boundaries erased, perhaps the greatest remaining scandal, and tragedy, is for people to be paralysed by
The Singapore Repertory Theatre presents Mies Julie. When wars on race, class and sexuality have been fought, with some concessions won and boundaries erased, perhaps the greatest remaining scandal, and tragedy, is for people to be paralysed by their newfound freedom. - PHOTO: SINGAPORE REPERTORY THEATRE

When wars on race, class and sexuality have been fought, with some concessions won and boundaries erased, perhaps the greatest remaining scandal, and tragedy, is for people to be paralysed by their newfound freedom.

This twisted paradox is what shocks a 19th-century play, Miss Julie, by Swedish playwright August Strindberg back to life on stage in a pulsating and tightly wound adaptation by South African writer-director Yael Farber.

In the original Miss Julie, the titular character, daughter of an aristocrat, enters into a sexual relationship with her married manservant, offending taboos of class, gender and sexuality in the late 1800s.

Farber updates Strindberg's work by transposing it from 19th century Europe to contemporary South Africa 20 years after the apartheid ended in 1994 on Freedom Day, the country's first democratic election. And she sets it in the semi-desert region of Karoo where social-political conservatism prevails as a way of life even after two decades. In using South Africa's tumultuous history, fraught with tensions over race, power, land and affiliations as a backdrop, the play regains its provocative edge.

The fresh context also opens up a milieu to consider the abstract notion of a country's emancipation through the intimate struggles of individuals who try, but fail, to throw off the shackles of racism and colonialism.

In Farber's Mies Julie - "Mies" is Afrikaans for Miss, the language an offshoot of Dutch spoken in South Africa - the play circles around Julie, a white landowner's daughter, John, the black farm labourer whom the master favours, and Christine, John's mother, cook of the house and a second mother to Julie.

As in the original, the scenes are set in the kitchen of the master's house, a place where life is taken to feed primal needs and desires are consumed and satisfied.

The play opens with disapproving talk between mother and son about their young mistress, who having broken off her engagement, revels in her newly single status by dancing with other black domestic workers at their Freedom Day anniversary party.

Delirious on libations and the heat of the desert, the volatile Julie, played by a hypnotic Hilda Cronje with smooth precision, seduces John, a vehement Bongile Mantsai. She taunts and teases while he resists. They spar with barbs, lies and slurs, each pushing the other to the edge of self-loathing inaction.

Finally, in a livid moment, they snap and claim their freedom, John his right as a white landowner's equal and Julie, her right to be a woman of her choosing; they consummate their relationship on the kitchen table. The play is rated R18.

But after baring their bodies to each other - which Christine witnesses and reacts the only way she knows to horror, by suppressing it - the flicker of honesty they share quickly becomes fragile. They become haunted by generations of conditioned fear of the other, and stricken at having upset the deplorable yet comfortingly familiar status quo.

In this, Farber shows her mastery, deftly entangling national conflicts within the personal while offering no easy answer to this mire. Julie wants to seize her freedom by eloping. Christine, on the other hand, has accepted her station in life. Making a poignant reference to how she cannot vote because she has lost her fingerprints from decades of cooking and cleaning, she believes her release will come only when her ancestors, represented by the indigenous singer-musician Tandiwe "Nofirst" Lungisa, are freed from under the kitchen floor where they are buried. John, torn between the two women, dithers in the same spot.

The shallow stage can barely contain the social, political and emotional turbulence in their lives and the aural landscape of desolation and dread produced live by composers, brothers Daniel and Matthew Pencer. But small as it is, the characters remain trapped within their private anguish.

The ending is clear in a play pregnant with symbols such as Julie's dog, which receives an abortion after being impregnated by a mongrel, but when the moment comes, the sting is fresh and paralysing.

lijie@sph.com.sg

book it

MIES JULIE

Where: DBS Arts Centre, 20 Merbau Road

When: Till Sept 13, Monday to Saturday, 8pm

Admission: $50 and $60, Monday to Thursday; $60 and $70, Friday and Saturday, from Sistic (go to www.sistic.com.sg or call 6348-5555)