Shakespeare Theatre Company Mies JulieBy David Siegel • Nov 18th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Shakespeare Theatre Company: (Info) (Web)
Lansburgh Theatre, Washington DC
Through November 24th
90 minutes without intermission
$45-$65 (Plus Fees)
Reviewed November 12th, 2013
How do you describe a play that is ferocious about deep, excruciating pain and yet is beautifully constructed, acted and presented. How do you describe a production that means to challenge and provoke?
For your reviewer the answer is that for Mies Julie, currently at the Lansburgh Theater, it is this: it is fully alive with power, emotion and choreographed movements that are brutal one moment and glowing the next. It is simply unstoppable as it grabs the audience. It will stick with you for some time after. It is a shock to the system.
For those with a taste for the raw power of live theater, and who don’t require a happy ending to be satisfied, Mies Julie by South African writer/director Yael Farber is a work of art. It a rage against power and control as two trapped, doomed people exchange powers over each other. They are bent on destruction and that they will have it.
If you know Johan August Strindberg’s Miss Julie (1888) then you know the good bones of this adaptation. As Farber wrote in her program notes, “Over a single night, a young woman and her father’s servant peel away the layers that separate and possibly have protected them from each other until now. With this simple premise in mind, I have set out to try to articulate the myriad issues that face us as South Africans.” She adds that she has not expected to answer the questions he raises in the play, but “That we take a fearless look at what sits beneath.” She has done that indeed.
The Mies Julie setting is night in the kitchen in a far-off, self-contained South African estate. It is in a time well past the end of apartheid and the legacies of Stephen Biko and Nelson Mandela. It is a time well beyond the South African theater works of Athol Fugard and his Blood Knot, Sizwe Bansi is Dead, and Master Harold…and the Boys.
The evening becomes quickly scorching as an oppressed young black farm laborer (a muscular, handsome Bongile Mantsai as John), his “master’s” spoiled, self-destructive daughter (a lithe, striking Hilda Cronje as Mies Julie), and the caring, moral center of a woman (the effecting Thoko Ntshinga as Christine) who has raised them both. The land owner and “master” is away as he often is. Mies Julie’s mother died long ago.
It is Cronje who begins the destructive dance, as she teases and taunts John. She goes so far as to demand that Mantsai kiss her feet while on his knees. Cronje has a striking throaty alto voice that come out of nowhere. Yes, like Lauren Bacall asking Bogie to light her cigarette with a match in “To Have and Have Not.” Cronje’s frame looks petite when near Mantsai. She moves about the stage as if her formal dance training was not an afterthought. She moves with a lightness; floating into place even when brutally attacked. Cronje is like a slow motion video of a basketball player making utterly crazy moves, but in control always, and then making the shot. It is thrilling and compelling.
Mantsai is totally in-tune with his character, himself as an actor and in-synch with Cronje. Perhaps he is conjuring his own real life, in a way, but on stage. You can see him battle himself, not wanting to act even after she heckles him. You can watch his internal thinking come across his face and body as he considers all the bad that will come should he take her. He knows that once he commits to move against her, there is no turning back. It is a marvel to see. He too has the moves of a dancer even as he effortlessly jumps on furniture or lovingly embraces Cronje. But it is his reactions to her showy contempt that become intolerable. A spit in his face from Cronje is a last straw.
There is also the presence of Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa as an apparition who slowly moves about the production representing long gone ancestors. She also sings in an otherworldly way to underpin what is going on. She is a ghost with special powers.
The setting is one of humidity and heat. Set designer Patrick Curtis has smoke-like steam and humid vapors pumped in which at times covers the actors so as to hide leaving more to the imagination. A lone lazy fan moves slowly throughout the 90 minute, no intermission production.
The hypnotic other worldly music composed and performed by Daniel and Matthew Pencer add much to the heated nature of Mies Julie. It seems to be laptop sampling and bits and pieces of live brass notes with an almost improvisational feel. It starts as pre-show music and continues throughout the production. Reminds your reviewer of the importance of mood setting using drums in O’Neil’s The Emperor Jones in its own way.
The choreography of the stage movements goes uncredited. But it is eye-popping; like a bolding of words in print. Cronje and Mantsai are simple fearless and confident as they throw themselves about in, out, and over furniture and props. They are Astaire and Rogers without tails, tux and gown. And as costume designer Birrie le Roux has dressed Cronje, it is her athletic figure and strong legs that are often all she is costumed in but for some strategic underthings.
Mies Julie is a dance of two lost souls as they ignite around each other. There seem no exits for either as together and separately they explode into a “pas de deux.” It is a dance mutually switching sexual possession. It is a dance of grasping for how the post apartheid South Africa is to survive the consequences of its history and arguments about who truly owns the land; whose ancestors “count” more in any equation.
For those with a taste for what may seem as transgressive, the crossing of imposed social boundaries of class, gender, race and more, Mies Julie will haunt you with its intimacy, its violence and its politics. It will haunt you with the questions raised. It will haunt you with its sheer force. It will haunt you for the beauty of its acting.
As Farber’s Mies Julie asks. As did Strindberg’s Miss Julie in his Sweden so long ago; given certain circumstances is love even possible? Well that is really not just for South Africa or Sweden, is it?
Note: “Mies Julie” contains strong adult themes and nudity. Recommended for audiences aged 16+.
- John: Bongile Mantsai
- Mies Julie: Hilda Cronje
- Christine: Thoko Ntshinga
- Ancestor, Singer and Musician: Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa
Direction and Design
- Written and Directed by Yael Farber, Based on August Strindberg’s Miss Julie
- Music Composed and Performed by Daniel and Matthew Pencer
- Set and Lighting Design: Patrick Curtis
- Original Lighting Design: Paul Abrams
- Costumes: Birrie le Roux
- Touring Production and Lighting Manager: Michael Maxwell
- U.S. Stage Manager: Joseph Smelser
Disclaimer: The reviewer purchased his own ticket for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9922.
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.