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Yael Farber’s South African Adaptation of Miss Julie
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Yael Farber’s South African Adaptation of Miss Julie

Picture of Andrew Kingsford-Smith
Updated: 13 December 2016
Born and raised in Johannesburg, Yael Farber is an award-winning playwright and director who is well known for her controversial and hard-hitting works. Her most recent creation, Mies Julie, transports August Strindberg’s classic to modern day South Africa, exploring lingering racial problems through her explosive dramatic style. Recently performed at the Riverside Studio in London, we review this exciting adaptation and analyse how Farber remodelled this classic into a new cultural frame.

Yael Farber’s new adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie reignites the flame of this 19th century classic. Mies Julie brings the struggles of class and sex back to the stage, but also adds an additional layer of latent racism. Transforming 19th century Sweden into 2012 South Africa, the play is set on the night of Freedom Day in a small South African town. John slaves away to polish his boss and landowner’s boots, while the recently divorced daughter, the title character Julie, restlessly dances around him. Just like in the original, the story is driven by their sexual tension and constant battle to dominate over each other, leaving the audience unsure of what is true and what is manipulation.

In this adaptation Farber has re-written Strindberg’s script, using the original as a skeleton for the piece. The play has been crafted to hit certain plot points, repeat specific lines and create images reminiscent of the Miss Julie we know, but the dramatic texture and style give this production a distinct new life. The most notable and exciting difference in this performance is the abandonment of Strindberg’s naturalism, which Mies Julie emphasises from the very get-go. The play opens with thick smoke twisting around the theatre whilst unsettling and ambient music is played by visible musicians on the side of the stage. Sombre faced actors then slowly enter, adding African tones through instruments and vocals, but the audience soon realises this is not a celebration of African culture; the tradition berimbau instrument is made from a derelict tin and the actor playing John goes straight to cleaning his master’s shoes. This is a striking portrayal of contemporary South Africa, a nation still in its first 20 years of post-apartheid government.

 

From this bold opening, the play continues through a fiery fusion of natural dialogue, hyperbolic emotions and intense physical blocking, all combined with such ferocity that it is near impossible to look away. The physicality and movement of Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai – who play Julie and John – create stunning visual metaphors to the words they speak, which is a welcome addition to this frequently staged play. Although at first slightly jarring when one expects to see naturalistic dialogue, the heightened energy creates a captivating rhythm that carries the story through. This amplified vigour also leads to some of the insinuation and subtlety becoming brutalised, working as a strong symbol for the harsh reality of racial tensions on the stage.

 

On top of her directing style, Farber also uses dialogue to highlight some vexed issues in South Africa. In their ongoing power struggle, John and Julie argue over the proprietorship of the land, both claiming that their ancestors are buried under the farm. John’s claim of original ownership is quickly counteracted as Julie questions who his ancestors had murdered to win the land. This argument is further heightened as Thoko Ntshinga plays the other servant Christine – John’s mother in this version – and feels so connected to the earth that she would rather work for Julie’s father than run away for freedom elsewhere. This struggle is also portrayed in an external metaphor, as actor Tandiwe Nofirst Lunisa walks around the stage as an unnoticed ancestor, while the aura around the landowner is continuously felt through the other characters’ fear, although he never enters the stage.

 

Mies Julie is a fascinating dramatic synthesis of different cultures, styles and time periods, that really highlights the potential of framing classics in new contexts. This adaptation strikes the right balance of not feeling outdated and not pushing ‘modernisation’ too far. The play faces the contemporary problem of racism head on, while the act of retelling a classic adds an extra resonance of an unsolved age-old issue. Not restricted geographically, Farber highlights the horrifying international extent of racism in her director’s notes: ‘We hope its truths might speak to you not only of South Africa’s complexity – but also the unaddressed ghosts of any nation waiting to be acknowledged.’