The Classic Shakespeare Company is presenting two 19th century plays by August Strindberg in Repertory. The Dance of Death (see my review by “clicking here” in a new version by the award winning Conor McPherson) and Mies Julie in an adaptation by the award winning South African director and playwright Yaël Farber.
Farber has given Strindberg’s Miss Julie a renovation in texture, location, structure and dynamic by intensifying the conflict and shortening the arc of the play’s development. Inherent in this production directed by Shariffa Ali is the force and power to further elucidate the themes about classism, chauvinism, oppression, economic injustice, racism, white supremacy and cyclical revenge with the backdrop of a new setting, South Africa, 2012. Additionally. she has changed the characterization of Christine from Jean’s fiancee to John’s mother, and worldly servant Jean to Xhosa farm worker John, intriguingly characterizing him as one who grew up with Mies Julie on the farm that Julie’s father owns.
Christine has raised Mies Julie alongside her own son when Julie’s mother abandoned her daughter suffering from severe depression. The mother, alienated and isolated from the strangeness of the colonial women with whom she never could feel comfortable, the difficulty of the farming life and her own inner regrets caved in her soul. Without any sense of purpose or the obligation of duty to take care of her own child, she shoots herself and little Julie finds the disastrous ruin of the woman. Mies Julie thinks she is responsible for her mother’s death, but is nurtured by Christine’s love to eventually recover.
Nevertheless, Mies Julie bears the scars of the trauma. And during the course of the play we intuit that her rebellious behavior and impulsiveness suppresses an inner pain as she careens through her life. If not for Christiane’s love and an emotional attachment to Christine’s son John, who protects her and secretly, hopelessly loves her, Mies Julie might follow in her mother’s footsteps. The character of Mies Julie is most similar to Strindberg’s Miss Julie in ethos, however, the fascinating twists of transformation of setting reshape all of her actions and give them additional resonance and thematic richness.
Farber’s adaptation opens in a farmhouse kitchen in Eastern Cape, Karoo, South Africa on Freedom Day, 27 of April 2012, almost 20 years after all South Africans were give the right to vote in 1994. The day is a vital symbol integral to the complex themes of this adaptation. For the blacks of South Africa, the price of freedom was purchased by blood and suffering. The black culture’s redemption and return to the land of their ancestors will also be paid for by blood and suffering in a twisted karmic resolution in Farber’s Mies Julie.
Indeed, ancestors in the form of a ghostly grandmother seek revenge as she haunts the house which was built upon ancestral graves. Although this is not effected in the set design, Christine refers to the great tree which was cut down to make way for the house, but whose roots retained life and now break through the tiles of the floor of the kitchen and continue to grow in defiance of the white, man-made structure. The symbolism of the tree as representational of the Xhosa family which belongs on the land and whose culture can never be erased is a focal point. Unfortunately, without evidence of the tree breaking through the floor (due to the repertory’s need for minimalism) an important theme of Farber’s work is diminished, opaquely realized through Christine’s dialogue which becomes too easily lost in the hum of action.
Farber presents the underlying conflict when the workers on the farm and some squatters who have returned to the land that their ancestors lived on before the colonials came, have been celebrating and dancing on Freedom Day. Mies Julie dances with the workers a bold and inappropriate act. Because her father is away, she rebelliously revels in these liberties which lower her stature and respect in the workers’ eyes. When John attempts to admonish her, we see the emotional tensions between them and realize that the relationship they have developed in many ways runs past master/servant and portends elements of love or sado-masochism or both.
During the course of the production we discover that the South African’s hope is to one day take back the land from the colonials like Julie’s father. They consider this an act of restitution for the terrible bloodshed and misery caused in the years of usurpation which brought about cultural devastation. The economic struggles continue in the present day for the workers like John and Christine must still submit to servitude to survive. Decades of economic injustice and inequality have delayed their accumulation of enough capital to purchase the land that their ancestors lived on centuries ago.
Though John has educated himself and wants the freedom to be able to prosper beyond his “class and race,” he is not the urbane, world traveler of the Jean of Strindberg’s work. And though he has had women, he has loved Mies Julie from childhood. It is this night that erupts in a culmination of many subterranean wants and desires for both Mies Julie and for John. And of course it is this night of freedom that lifts up Mies Julie’s “Afrikaaner race” out from under the degradation and debasement of oppressing the Xhosa.
John and Julie are representative of their race and class. On one level Mies Julie becomes the sacrifice to expiate the “sins” of her forefathers when she chooses to become equal and unite in a physical consummation of love with John. Likewise for John, it is a night where he asserts his privilege to repossess the land (symbolized by Mies Julie’s body) and achieve a lifelong dream to be restored to his true sense of self-worth, identity and power.
The beauty and tragedy of portraying their relationship as Farber does in layer upon layer of intricate psychological and social texture is that we understand before the characters do that perhaps decades need to pass before the destructive social MATRIX in which both live and have their being disintegrates. John comes to this realization sooner than Mies Julie, who is impaled on the immediacy and unreality of wanting an idyllic life with John away from the farm. She intends to run away with him and use her father’s money that she’s stolen from the safe. John cannot trust Mies Julie enough to leave his mother and the stultifying but familiar identity that has oppressed him his entire life. The two are trapped and their end appears to be an inevitability. The time is surely “out of joint.” And only a few options remain for them to take before Julie’s father returns the next day and stasis consumes their lives once more.
In this adaption, Farber presents some of Strindberg’s themes front and center and then embellishes and expands them. Farber suggests the following. In order for the injustices between and among economic classes to ever be resolved, the classes themselves must be dissolved. For all human beings, the trials overcoming the miseries of childhood and the nullifying stricture of social mores, are uneasily won. For outsiders who are economically challenged, the trials are even greater. Only gradually through the passing of the generations will there ever be economic and social parity between and among disparate races and ethnic groups.
Christine knows this. She treasures her job and is willing to abide in her faith believing that for her son’s generation it will be better, but for her generation, it is finished. John wants change immediately and by fathering Mies Julie’s child he will overthrow the status quo, though he risks her father’s wrath. They must leave, for if a baby comes, her father will kill them both.
The harder he and Julie attempt to extricate themselves from the binding circumstances, the more they become mired in fear. It is a truism that they must leave or die. They cannot forge new identities in the same place where old hatreds and resentments float like ghosts above the blood-soaked land. Mies Julie wisely commands that they run away from her father and the farm’s oppression and migrate to a new identity and new existence in the city. But John is stuck. Christine adjures that she will never leave the farm. John must choose. Either he abandons his mother and goes with Mies Julie to freedom, or he remains with Christine in servitude. If there is a baby, all three will die.
Farber’s adaptation presented by the CSC and directed by Shariffa Ali enthralls with strong, emotional performances by James Udon as John, Elise Kibler as Mies Julie and Patrice Johnson-Chavannes as Christine. And when the ghost of the grandmother walks the kitchen, Vinnie Burrows is uncanny and foreboding. Because of her presence, we understand that a fearful retribution is coming, but it remains unclear until the play’s conclusion.
The production runs like a bullet train on a collusion course toward destruction especially in the scenes where Kibler and Udon spar, seek to dominate and control, then relent, succumbing to their tenuous love for each other. Kibler is effective in her smoldering, wild longing. Udon is sensitive and caring as the “fool” for love, then angry and rebellious in believing he is Mies Julie’s plaything. These emotions provide a field for incredible contrasts. On the one hand Julie and John collide with their fear of abandonment and betrayal. Then they fly to each other then fly to reinforce a love perches on the edge of desperation. These tensions and the heightened interplay between Kibler’s Mies Julie and Udon’s John is wrought with ferocious zeal.
A note of warning. Some of the dialect and the accents are muffled and strained. I found that swaths of dialogue were garbled because of an overemphasis to “get the accents right.” I am not referring to the words of Afrikaans or Indigenous words in Xhosa, but the heavily accented English. The accents are vital for they introduce the setting. However, the use remained problematic. When the emotion was presented organically, the dialogue followed and the actors were easily understood.
Finally, the set design was spare and adequate as it should be in this repertory Strindberg cycle. However, the incredible symbolism of the tree should be included as an important thematic thread of the play. The music, the effects, make-up and costumes are apt. When the ghostly presence enters and leaves, all these design elements effect the supernatural wonderfully.
Mies Julie and The Dance of Death alternate in repertory at CSC (13th Street between 3rd and 4th) until 10 March. Mies Julie is a spare 75 minutes with no intermission. You can pick up tickets at their website.