Mies Julie: ‘exploring the national within the realm of the personal’

Award-winning South African director Yael Farber is currently in rehearsal at the Baxter Theatre Centre, creating her first new South African work since the international touring hit Molora, an adaptation of the Oresteia Trilogy.

Farber’s works have toured extensively over the last ten years, earning her a reputation for hard-hitting, controversial works of the highest artistic standard.

In 2012, she has chosen to adapt the August Strindberg classic Miss Julie to a South African setting. She took a break during rehearsals to speak to us about the work.

Baxter Blog (BB): Why did you select Miss Julie as a piece to rework in a South African context?
Yael Farber (YF): Strindberg’s original Miss Julie was a piece that created great controversy in its time. It remains a compelling examination of the power dynamics between classes and genders. It struck me as a good palette upon which to look at some of the emerging issues that exist between South Africans. The shifts as well as the stagnations of who holds the power. Power comes in many forms. In the economic sense, this is intrinsically tied up with who owns the land and how this has failed to be addressed in the emerging new vision for the country. I wanted to create a work that captures this and the other subtle forms of complicated colonizing that occurred as a result of apartheid. Miss Julie allows me explore what Greek Tragedy offers: The palette to explore the national within the realm of the personal and domestic.

BB: You’ve adapted a number of works during your career, including Shakespeare and Greek tragedies. What’s the hardest thing about adapting an existing piece of work?
YF: What to mess with and what to retain as the spine of the audience’s experience. Moving along the track of the original plot and characters’ arcs, offers a powerful series of common reference points upon which you let the audience move with you. But turning these expectations on their heads is also crucial to an adaptation – otherwise it becomes too pat. Subverting expectations based on the original should not be done just for effect – or it can be terribly contrived. These choices have to come from a place of integrity, aligned with what you are trying to say with the work. Making these choices can be the most challenging part of an adaptation.

BB: Miss Julie has a special place in the Baxter’s history, mainly due to the barriers it challenged in the 80’s. What can SA audiences expect this time around?
YF: Sexual relations across the colour line – while still interesting and/or shocking for some – is hardly the shocker (not to mention law breaker! – in South Africa that it once was. I don’t believe that this is the compelling point of a MISS JULIE in contemporary South Africa. Land issues, ownership, power, sexuality, mothers, memories. These are what remain as shrapnel from our history. The battle of these primal issues in a kitchen over a single night between a farm labourer and his Baas’s daughter – is what MIES JULIE has its hand in. Kitchens are places of steam and heat and making and devouring and talking. We aim for this MIES JULIE to bring the heat to the fore in all senses.

BB: How has living in Canada changed or grown your vision and the way you direct? (if at all)
YF: There is always the growth one incurs by being displaced. Its the hardest but most powerfully challenging experience to place yourself outside your context. I have gained great perspectives from this experience. I have enjoyed a certain dignity that theatre is afforded in North America. But what I am most affected by is how unique South Africa is. Being away and creating in other places only serves to high light why I love and appreciate where i come from and the artists that this country has wrought. There is an intimacy and powerful connection that ties us together here. This is a post-traumatic society. Yes. Its even a present-traumatic society. It makes theatre – GOOD theatre – a necessity. Like in Ancient Greece. Not to attend theatre in ancient Greece was illegal because it made you a better citizen to face yourself in those arenas. South Africa needs theatre – powerful, brave theatre – in the same way those soldiers returning from war to Athens needed it. As artists in South Africa – we need to rise to the challenge of creating such theatre. Because its needed here. Its by being away that one’s vision for this grows and the hunger to continue to answer this call remains.

BB: Tell us a little about the performers who will be appearing in this production?
YF: The three actors who play the leads (there are no extras) are powerful in their own rights. Thoko Ntshinga is a veteran performer. Originally part of the Market Theatre and Barney Simon’s searing productions of the 70s and 80s, Thoko has lived and performed through the crucial trajectory in SA. She is a powerhouse performer who brings her capacity to the role of Christine. John is played by Bongile Mantsai, and Miss Julie by Hilda Cronje. These two potent performers bring the passion, emotion and sensuality that this piece demands.
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Mies Julie runs at the Grahamstown Festival from the 2nd to the 4th of July. (Book online here). It runs at the Baxter from 11 July to 26 July. (Book online here). The run continues at the Edinburgh Festival, followed by the Pretoria State Theatre.

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8 thoughts on “Mies Julie: ‘exploring the national within the realm of the personal’

  1. Hello. I saw this show at the Edinburgh Festival last month. It is probably the most powerful piece of theatre I have ever seen…the performances are extraordinary: passionate, graceful, committed, sensual, exciting, doom laden. I was also bowled over by the choreographed movement in the play. It was really beautiful and overall quite stunning. I could hardly speak as I left the theatre. It moved me greatly. Thank you very much.

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