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 could easily be relocated to apartheid-era South Africa, in which the master/servant relationship and threat of miscegenation becomes a fraught political issue. Indeed, a 1985 production of Strindberg’s play in Johannesburg, which featured a kiss between a black man and a white woman, sparked a national outcry by right-wing Afrikaners, leading to protests, death threats and calls for the production to be banned. Nearly 20 years after the end of apartheid, it is still a living issue in Farber’s play.
“There’s a strange kind of irony around the celebrations that go on in South Africa about Freedom Day,” says Farber. “While there is something extraordinary to celebrate – something miraculous did happen, the yoke of an incredibly powerful fascist system was thrown off – there is a rising sense of frustration with the stagnation of issues that have simply not moved on.”
In adapting Miss Julie, Farber wondered how to go for “the jugular vein” of contemporary South Africa. It did not lie, she thought, in the depiction of an interracial affair, even on a rural farm. “The real shocker is a text in which these characters say everything to each other that South Africans long to say to one another. It just becomes this very heated night in which two people who do love each other, but deeply resent each other for various reasons, are exposed.”
As the pendulum of power swings between them – through commands and submission, through lust and sex – words become weapons. When Julie speaks of her love for her land, John replies, “It’s not yours to love . . . My people are buried here. Beneath this floor.”
“So are mine,” Julie shoots back. “Out there beneath the willow trees. Three generations back. Where the f*** do I go?”
Farber considers her dialogue, which some critics have found excessively declarative. “If you’re aiming to say the cruellest possible thing,” she says, “you’re going to look for the truest thing to say. Because that’s what hurts.” The stakes are high in Mies Julie because Farber keeps elevating them. “At every level I thought, how can I turn up the heat?”
To some extent Farber’s production contains an entire history of South African theatre as well, which has had its own unique evolution.
When Strindberg was writing his original play in the late 19th century, South African theatre was already strictly divided between Xhosa and Zulu performance rituals, of music, mime and dance, and an Afrikaans theatre that modelled itself on the plays and even buildings of London’s West End. After the international playwrights’ boycott of South Africa during apartheid, in the 1960s, South Africa’s white liberal playwrights such as Athol Fugard, Deon Opperman and Reza de Wet helped the country establish its own voice, one that was highly politicised and allusive, often exploring sexual and psychological taboos to express the nation’s political anxieties.
One of the most influential spaces for such protest theatre since the 1970s has been the Market Theatre in Johannesburg. Farber, who grew up politically aware during apartheid in Johannesburg, had originally aspired to be an actor, but her move towards directing was “deeply informed by the aura of the Market Theatre” during the 1980s. “It really felt like the only place where I was being told the truth,” she remembers. “I never got over the fever of that.”