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."

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.

Divided theatre
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.”

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