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?
Because of a legal loophole and the building’s classification as a market, the Market Theatre was also one of the few places where black people and white people could sit together. “It’s all so absurd now to say all of this. It felt like going to this island of sanity to be at the Market Theatre. I just decided to align myself with people I considered sane in a very insane situation.”
Mies Julie, which opens with the song of a Xhosa character called Ukhokho, an “otherworldly ancestor of indeterminate age”, and features extraordinarily kinetic performances from Hilda Cronje as Julie and Bongile Mantsai as John, seems to channel much of the diverse traditions of South African theatre: politicised and physical, poetic and spiritual, South African and European. In that combination, it’s tempting to see the traditions of a theatre that had long worked as a model of a more integrated society.
However, in using tragedies as a metaphor for cultural and political circumstances, Farber doesn’t seem to radiate an optimistic worldview: these stories never end well. “I think I am a fatalist,” she agrees, “in that I do believe we have a tendency to move towards the more tragic aspects of our nature. But I do believe in the redemptive possibility of what I have witnessed in my own country. Yes, we have the harshest sexual-violence crimes and violent deaths, but it’s a very traumatised society.”
This is why she doesn’t see her Mies Julie as necessarily bleak. “When you come from a society as intense as South Africa, and as screwed over by a system as South Africa, you’re going to see the worst that humanity is capable of, but you also really do witness the best,” she says. “I’ve seen small acts of heroism that infused me with a consistent need to represent restorative possibility. But it’s a hard-won restorative possibility. Despite our nature as human beings, there does seem to be this miraculous glitch in our essentially dark matrix. We manage to surprise each other.”
Mies Julie is at Town Hall Theatre,
Galway, from Tuesday until to July 28th, as part of the Galway Arts Festival