Paramount Center Mainstage, Tremont Street, Boston, MA
Writers: Yaël Farber, adapted from “Miss Julie” by August Strindberg
Performing company: Baxter Theatre Centre of South Africa
Presenting organizations: ArtsEmerson Boston, MA
Nov. 30- Dec. 8, 2013
It’s a good thing smoking is not allowed in theaters. With the tiniest of sparks, the Paramount Theater would have gone up in a fireball midway through “Mies Julie” tonight. The heat between Mies Julie (Hilde Cronje) and John (Bongile Mantsai), a laborer on her father’s estate in the rural East Cape region, is incandescent. Mies Julie is acting recklessly while her father is away from the farm. Young, sexually capricious, an entitled Mies Julie exudes a sense of a woman in heat.
PlaywrightYael Farber updated August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie”, first produced in 1888, to take place in her homeland South Africa. To Strindberg’s original themes dwelling on tensions between class and the sexes, add tension between the races and ownership of land in post Apartheid South Africa. Powderkeg.
Julie flirts provocatively with John, her father’s young black servant whom she’s known since they were both children. John, aroused but aware of his social standing, keeps his distance. With Julie’s persistence, you know he will be sorely tested.
A storm is on the way. With heavy atmospherics, thunderous rumbling bass tones so deep that you feel them vibrating through the theater floor, the mist blowing over the set, you know something of awful Shakespearian scale is going to transpire. And the play has hardly begun.
It is impossible to understate Hilde Cronje’s ability to portray Julie’s raw sexual desire and the way she uses her power as a white woman to manipulate John, at one point saying, “Master is away, you eat here,” ordering John to sit at the wood plank kitchen table.
Bare gleaming legs, short skirt, loose red tunic, she glides with the sultry body awareness of a ballerina intent on seduction, not sure how far to take her precocious behavior. “Kiss my foot,” she demands, then pulls her foot away when he kneels before her.
Underneath the sexuality of this volatile relationship is the friction between white landowners and the black population on whom they depend for labor. The play takes place on the eve of the 18th anniversary of Freedom Day, the first in which citizens of all races were allowed to take part in 1994. Soon after, Nelson Mandela was named President. The right to vote and the assumption of political power by Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC) did not immediately address the issue of land ownership. The problem of land ownership plagues South Africa to this day.
Hilda Cronje as Julie and Bongile Mantsai as John in Baxter Theatre Center of South Africa and ArtsEmerson’s production of “Mies Julie.”
The farmhouse kitchen takes up most of the stage. Its rustic worn wood planks, wooden table, chairs, cabinet give Julie, who stalks the stage like a cat, plenty of room to try to work out her demons. Her father is away but his presence is nearly spectral in the form of his black boots that John assiduously buffs while being tested by Julie.
The intermittent presence of John’s mother, who raised Julie after her mother committed suicide, seems to be the only person governing Julie’s behavior. Raised in the old tradition, John's mother knows that much has changed but much remains the same after universal right to vote became the law of the land.
She’s seen enough of her white masters’ behavior to know their faults and cruelty. As a church going servant, she tries to stifle her son’s fierce sense of entitlement to own some of the land on which he toils, land his family owned before their right to own it was abolished in the Bantu Land Act No. 27 of 1913 (described in the theater program). Land restitution was called for in the 1990s but it hasn’t gained much traction. John hasn’t been brave enough to openly defy his master but is becoming more militant in his views.
Sexual politics? Plenty here. Julie’s power as daughter of landowner gives her room to manipulate. The only thing she needs to fear is her own lust. Virile and robust, John knows he has what Julie wants, that it's a source of power for him. Carnal attraction pulls them together. A belief they are each entitled to the farmland pulls them apart. Three generations of Julie’s forebears are buried in the land. John’s relatives are buried under the floor of the kitchen built when the property changed hands.
Clearly, the playwright is a provocateur in her own right. Arguments over who has the right to the land isn’t usually involved in foreplay but here it makes sense. Both John and Julie know that land and who controls it shaped who they are and who they will become.
In a storm of intensity rarely portrayed on stage, John and Julie copulate violently on the kitchen table. John lays claim to Julie and the property she represents. Blood is spilled. Both lives have been destroyed. More bodies will be buried in the land. Who will own it? Farber lets us draw our own conclusions.