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The following review was published in The New York Times, November 12, 2012.
Yael Farber’s Mies Julie at St. Ann’s Warehouse
by Ben Brantley
The temperature never stops rising in Yael Farber’s “Mies Julie,” a play for which “scorcher” is way too mild a description. This inspired South African adaptation of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie,” which opened on Monday night at the newly relocated St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, begins with smoke rising from the stage and a thrumming music that suggests the noise inside your head when you have a high fever.
These sensual stimuli, though, are only a foretaste of conflagrations to come. In translating Strindberg’s 1888 tale of love, class and madness into contemporary South Africa, Ms. Farber has created a parched and blistered world in which every living soul is highly combustible tinder, and the rules for living keep melting.
Be warned: There is more erotic heat generated by the play’s two central characters, fiercely inhabited by Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai, than in any production in town. But this is a fire that chills as it destroys. You may well leave the show in a sweat, but it is likely to be a cold one. (A production of the Baxter Theater Center at the University of Cape Town, in association with the South Africa State Theater, “Mies Julie” runs through Dec. 2. EDIT — extended through December 16.)
Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” was always a shocker, with its raw depiction of a death-tempting, socially forbidden love affair in a world that depended on people’s knowing their places. Yet while it remains a fixture in the canon of modern drama, it seldom works onstage.
Too bold to be presented in the age in which it was written, it now often registers as an anachronistic melodrama. There have been various attempts to update and recontextualize “Miss Julie,” including a version by Patrick Marber that put the story in England in the mid-1940s and was seen in a stiffly self-conscious 2009 Broadway production starring Sienna Miller.
Ms. Farber, who also directs here, provides what feels like the natural and inevitable setting for a latter-day “Miss Julie”: a country in which enforced racial segregation remains a painful part of living memory. While the more obvious route to pursue would have been to place her “Mies Julie” in the age of apartheid, Ms. Farber has instead chosen to locate it in this very year of 2012.
By so doing, she is saying that the wounds of apartheid have not only left scars; they’re also still bleeding and unlikely to be stanched anytime soon.
“Mies Julie” is set on the Karoo estate of a Boer planter during the celebration of Freedom Day, commemorating the election of Nelson Mandela in 1994. The word freedom stings like a taunt when it is spoken in this play. Its characters are all prisoners of their nation’s history, and not just its recent colonial history.
Patrick Curtis’s set — a kitchen in the plantation owner’s house — seems to float amid a primeval darkness. (Mr. Curtis is also the expert lighting designer.) The room’s conventionally tiled floor is surreally broken by the trunk of a tree. A ghost in tribal garb (in the imposing, cryptic person of the musician Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa) walks the house singing, invisible to its residents but palpable all the same. And somber, subtle music (composed and performed by Daniel and Matthew Pencer) feels as pervasive as air.
Ms. Farber’s staging seamlessly blends the visual poetry into the naturalistic script. The play’s central characters make their entrances in a procession, carrying farm implements and suggesting allegorical figures from a Brueghel painting. One bears a scythe. This turns out to have a devastatingly practical function as well as a symbolic one.
As in Strindberg’s original, the play is structured as a dance of death (to use another Strindberg title) between two fatally mismatched, inextricably bonded characters. Once again, they are the daughter of a ruling class household (Julie, played by Ms. Cronje) and her father’s favorite servant (John, portrayed by Mr. Mantsai). The character of the cook, Christine (the excellent Thoko Ntshinga), has been changed from John’s fiancée to his mother.
The divide among these characters is made flesh by the colors of their skin, of course. But more than in most versions of “Miss Julie,” you believe in the familial bond that connects them as well. Christine has been the principal caretaker of Julie, whose mother committed suicide, and Julie and John grew up as playmates. John, we will learn, adored little Julie from her infancy.
Or did he? In the world portrayed here, emotions are never clear. As the imperious, sullen Julie flirts, baits and tempts John in the play’s first scene, it is difficult to identify just how they feel about each other. There’s no denying the sexual attraction. But the aphrodisiac that excites them is made up of many jangling pieces: contempt, power-lust, a protective tenderness and those eternal erotic twins, love and hate. When Julie asks John, who’s recalling their shared childhood, “You loved me or just hated yourself?,” he responds, tersely, “Same thing.”
What’s most remarkable is how all these aspects seem to be always in play. The sex act that finally occurs, like a sudden explosion, between John and Julie is both a consummation and a violation. And just who is violating whom? Ms. Farber has taken special care to keep fluid the shifting choreography of dominance and submission.
Ms. Cronje is simply astonishing, one of those rare actresses who conveys a multitude of conflicting impulses in a single moment. Her pale, austerely beautiful face keeps dissolving and rehardening, between childlike openness and aristocratic opacity, gaping vulnerability and militant aggression.
Neither she nor John ever seems to stop moving, and it’s not just the natural kineticism of youth. Every movement tells another story that contradicts the previous one. Their very identities are in a perpetual state of flux. They don’t know who they are, what roles they should be playing, or what they could possibly become in the future.
Only once before the play’s conclusion are Julie and John allowed to settle into a moment of serenity. It occurs after that first bruising, blood-drawing sexual collision, as they lie in each other’s arms, breathing gently and steadily. Look gratefully, for as long as it lasts, upon this beautiful moment of truce. It’s the only one you’re going to be allowed.