Yael Farber: Turning up the heat in South Africa
South Africa’s intense society shows the best and worst of humanity, says Yael Farber. Can ‘Mies Julie’, her version of Strindberg’s class tragedy, escape apartheid?
Miss Julie has been called many things in her time: “mad”, “crazy”, “wild” and, more recently, “off her head”. Those are just a few of the adjectives, culled from various translations – the last belonging to Frank McGuinness – to describe the heroine of August Strindberg’s 1888 tragedy of sexual desire and inflexible class barriers. She has also frequently moved home: from late 19th-century rural Sweden; to an English country manor during the Labour party’s landslide victory in 1945, in Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie; or to America’s Jazz Age, in Neil LaBute’s recent version. Now, though, Miss Julie is really feeling the heat.
“She’s mad again, tonight, ma. Bewitched,” says John, in the opening words of Yael Farber’s internationally celebrated new version, set in contemporary South Africa. It may seem like a modest alteration, but everything else here has been pointedly transformed. The valet, Jean, has now become John, a Xhosa servant on a farm in Karoo, on the Eastern Cape of South Africa. Where he once addressed his fiancée, Christine, he is now addressing his mother, a domestic worker who also raised Julie, the white Afrikaans daughter of her employer, following her mother’s suicide.
The dangerous transgression of Strindberg’s doomed lovers was to cross the class divide on a heedless midsummer’s eve. Now, with a shared mother and contested claims to the land they live on, they are the inheritors of an apartheid past that – even on Freedom Day (Nelson Mandela’s birthday, July 18th) – has never fully dissipated.
A “sleeper hit” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe last year, Baxter Theatre’s production, which Farber also directed, found its audience slowly, as a trickle of effusive reviews soon became a torrent. It has since transferred successfully to New York and London, this week reaching the Galway Arts Festival.
Politics and life
“I’m always interested in how politics intersect with life,” says Farber on a break from rehearsals for her new play in Delhi, which is based on the fatal gang rape of Jyoti Singh Pandey in India last year. For Mies Julie, she was less interested in reigniting the fire of Strindberg’s ideas than in discovering an arresting depiction of her homeland. “I think theatre can be quite deadening if somebody thinks that, by simply covering a weighty issue, you somehow deserve an audience or accolades. First and foremost, I’m a storyteller and my job is to tell a story well and provide a compelling evening for the audience.”
Farber, who teaches directing at the National Theatre School in Montreal, is well aware of the controversies that have long surrounded Strindberg’s play. Initially banned in 1888, today it is more likely to draw censorious criticism for its misogynistic subtext, in which a woman who crosses the social divide is punished utterly for her desire. (Strindberg, a “failed author” and bankrupt, had a notoriously stormy relationship with his baroness wife.)
The characters in Strindberg’s Miss Julie sit on a precarious social fault line, but, as Farber points out, the paranoia of the landed gentry doesn’t engage too many audiences these days. “Whenever I adapt a classic, I like to consider how it shocked, or worked with great charge, inside the contemporary society and then to go about forensically working out what that charge would be in a current context. If we can’t buy into why the stakes are high in the story, then it’s problematic. My particular joy is to be able to adapt texts, so that through their lens we understand ourselves better in a contemporary context.”