Where the bodies are buried: sexuality and power in South Africa

It’s a new day in South Africa in Yael Farber’s new version of Miss Julie. Has anything really changed?

Bongile Mantsai, Hilda Cronje, Thoko Ntshinga and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa in Mies Julie. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

Bongile Mantsai, Hilda Cronje, Thoko Ntshinga and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa in Mies Julie. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod

Wed, Jul 24, 2013, 19:20

Mies Julie
Town Hall Theatre, Galway Arts Festival

“Welcome to the new South Africa, Mies Julie,” says John, in a moment of bitter disdain, “where miracles leave us exactly where we began.” Delivered in a kitchen where the air is heavy with heat and history, that line holds little faith in the possibility of transformation, which has fascinating implications for Yael Farber’s new adaptation of August Strindberg’s classic.

Have gender and class boundaries changed so little since 1888? And, transposed from rural Sweden to a present-day South African farmland, have racial divisions become any less stark almost 20 years since the end of apartheid?

As with the original, Baxter Theatre’s production sketches a battleground of sexuality and power, and although the place of Farber’s characters in society is still anxiously defined by race, their more urgent conflict is a competing claim to the land. The Xhosa servants John (Bongile Mantsai) and his mother, Christine (Zoleka Helesi), know their ancestors are buried beneath the kitchen floor, but the plantation owner’s daughter, Julie (Hilda Cronje), will hardly loosen her claim to the Boer farmstead.

Everything about this version serves to ratchet up the tension, from the struggling ceiling fan above Patrick Curtis’s set to a viscerally unsettling sound design and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa’s foreboding Xhosa chants. In Farber’s version, John and Julie now share a mother figure in Christine, and it makes their attraction more emblematic of a divided nation, their passion more illicit and aggressive. “Be a man tonight, John, not a boy,” taunts Cronje, letting every word land like a slap.

The production itself seems divided, though, between a stylised and startling physical performance (in which Cronje and Mantsai execute a compelling dance of desire), and a text that often becomes symbolically heavy-handed (“You think my body is your restitution, my womb your land grab?”). It would be reasonable to assume that the writer and the director had very different ideas about where to take the play – but Yael Farber is both writer and director.

Even that split seems revealing, though, and while this new South Africa is no kinder to John and Julie than the old Sweden, the show itself provides a more encouraging metaphor of reconciliation.

Like South Africa, it is full of competing claims, divided perspectives, different inheritances and histories, and yet they cohere to forge something new.
Until July 28th