Shakespeare Theater's 'Mies Julie': Raw encounter

Yael Farber's South African Strindberg update wowed 2012 Edinburgh Fringe. Photo: STC/Murdo MacLeod

WASHINGTON, November 13, 2013 – There is something about a holiday that loosens one’s inhibitions and increases the possibility of conflict. And when that holiday is South Africa’s equivalent of the Fourth of July – Freedom’s Day – the passions and desperate fate of a privileged farm owner’s daughter and modern day indentured slave explode in a raw, messy kitchen table encounter.

That’s the smoldering undercurrent of “Mies Julie,” the unflinching South African adaptation of August Strindberg’s, “Miss Julie.” In a contemporary reworking of Strindberg’s classic play, internationally acclaimed director Yael Farber has ingeniously transposed this 1888 parable of class and gender struggles to a remote, South African estate 18 years post-Apartheid.

John (Bongile Mantsai) and Mies Julie (Hilda Cronje) in a more than animated discussion. (Credit: Murdo MacLeod)

Now, following a sell-out run at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe, “Mies Julie” is making its Washington, D.C. debut at the Shakespeare Theater Company’s (STC’s) Lansburgh Theatre where it opened on November 9.

STC’s explosive update of “Miss Julie” tackles the deeper complexities of South African society head on. Both play and setting brilliantly illuminate each other, creating a newly menacing, torridly passionate and urgently relevant allegory for a post-Apartheid state in profound transition.

“We are pleased to bring this brilliant and breathtaking production of ‘Mies Julie’ to D.C. audiences,” said STC Artistic Director Michael Kahn. “Theatregoers in D.C. are well-versed in classic works, and I know they will appreciate this updated version of Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ that pushes the boundaries of traditional theatre.”

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“This is a ‘Miss Julie’ for a world grappling to redefine itself,” explains Yael Farber. “It is a disturbing yet mesmerizing theatrical experience that reaches to address issues of restitution and the reality of what can and cannot ever be recovered.”

Both the author and the director of “Mies Julie,” Farber is a multiple award-winning director and playwright of international acclaim. Her productions have toured the world extensively, earning her a reputation for hard-hitting, controversial works of the highest artistic standard. “Mies Julie” won a string of international awards at the Edinburgh Festival 2012 and was named one of the Top Ten Productions of 2012 by The New York Times.

Against the pulsating backdrop of the annual Freedom Day celebrations, Xhosa farm laborer John played with alpha male ferociousness by Bongile Mantsai, and Hilda Cronje as the bewitched and abused Mies Julie, daughter of John’s white Afrikaans “master,” embark on a ruinous night of primal passion fuelled by drink, South African heat, and brutal class resentments.

Complications ensue, South African style, in this adaptation of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” (Credit: Murdo MacLeod)

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Adding to the mesmerizing spell that the play casts over the audience is the throbbing, pulsating backdrop of authentic Ngqoko cultural music by composers Daniel and Matthew Pencer.

Their side-stage presence inside the play’s smoke filled farmhouse—along with singer and musician Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa, who’s dressed in a traditional royal tribal robe—invokes the ancestral spirits of past generations. Their bones lie beneath the floorboards of that timeworn farmhouse, the place where John and his mother Christine—played by Thoko Ntshinga—eke out a subsistence existence.

Christine, who served as Mies Julie’s childhood nanny, continues to scrub the kitchen floor as three generations of her family have and John pays for the damage done by his mother’s vain attempt to free her ancestors. In an ironic counterpoint to the play’s trajectory, her very fingerprints have been worn away by years of servitude to the point where she can’t even provide a form of fingerprint identification to gain the opportunity to vote in national elections that have finally become a reality.

Given the intense, gripping nature of this production, it’s clear that Farber has assembled a formidable cast. It’s led by Bongile Mantsai and his outstanding portrayal as John, as well as Hilda Cronje’s complex Julie, whose erotic intensity sets this play apart and makes this production of the “STC Presents Series” a unique and daring new departure for the company.

The audience was left breathless by the depth and breadth of the play and its underlying conflicts leading up to and including its final, bloody climax. STC’s production of ‘Mies Julie’ rates a well-deserved 4 stars for the quality of the acting as well as for the sheer, raw intensity that this 90 minute one-act play delivers.

Rating: **** (Four out of four stars)

STC’s “Mies Julie” continues at the Lansburgh Theatre now through November 24, 2013. Ticket prices range from $40-65. For tickets and information, visit STC’s “Mies Julie” page.


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Malcolm Lewis Barnes

As a credentialed professional photo journalist, Mr. Barnes writes for the SQUARE BUSINESS journal, served as the Business Editor and columnist for the Washington Informer, and the Community Development writer for The Common Denominator newspaper

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