In the dehumanizing age of Apartheid politics in South Africa, the mere hope for “a democratic and just society without racial divisions” won Archbishop Desmond Tutu the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize. It took 10 years for his radical position to become reality, but if the Baxter Theater Center of the University of Cape Town is any authority, the dream of equality for all looks as impossible today as it did almost 30 years ago.
A furious pessimism on that score rages over the Mies Julie that the company brings to the new St. Ann’s Warehouse on Jay Street in DUMBO. While there are adaptations of classics that explore an age-old theme in a contemporary context, in director Yael Farber’s rewrite of August Strindberg’s fallen woman, place and time are so far removed from the original’s that theme had to be jettisoned outright. Gone are the preoccupations with female virginity and honor. Here, race is the main character in a merciless commentary on the injustices of South African society. And sex—violent and visceral—is its unapologetic companion.
But rather than deliver a travesty of the source text, as such a dare might, Farber makes us forget Strindberg altogether, while following his intrigue almost to the letter. Her Julie is the last of three generations of white farmers in the desolate Karoo region. John is her black laborer and the descendant of countless Xhosa, whose ancestors lie buried beneath the floor of the master’s kitchen. Whether “Boer” or “Kaffir,” both characters are bound to the land as if their forefathers were pulling their feet down through the soil, which almost happens in this ghost-haunted tale. But their rights to the Veenen Plaas, or “weeping farm,” are entirely unequal.
Mistress and menial are also desperately, impossibly, in love with each other, so that it seems at times that Farber drew more from Shakespeare’s Juliet than Strindberg’s Julie. Setting her story against the unresolvable question of land ownership in democratic South Africa, and the ignored demands of the black underclass for full economic equality, Farber finds a previously unfathomable power in the old Swede while striking a raw nerve at home.
It’s no surprise that the show won three major awards at Edinburgh last summer, and there is much to applaud in these gripping 90 minutes of performance. The cast is pitch-perfect in each of the recreated roles. The way Hilda Cronje’s Julie orders her black lover around is almost frightening, while Bongile Mantsai’s John is a coil of pent-up desire, for Julie and for freedom, that springs irrevocably to life. Thoko Ntshinga and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa provide the moral weight, as John’s mother and the ghost of his great-grandmother, that makes it impossible for love to trump destiny. The live sound design by Daniel and Matthew Pencer drives the moody action to its tragic conclusion.
Above all, Farber proves a masterly director with a talent for metaphor. Some farm tools, the imposing figure of a Xhosa matriarch, a dozen pairs of dirty Wellingtons such as John wears (in silent contrast to the baas’ polished brogans), and Julie’s spinning bird cage: All make clear in the first five minutes that worlds will whirl and collide here, but the land—and who will claim it—is the imperative issue. It’s a long way from Stockholm to Soweto, but Farber’s Mies Julie is a riveting voyage, and an essential one for understanding the still intermingled burden of race and class in contemporary Africa.