Perth Festival 2014 is upon us, and one of the first pieces of international theatre on the program is Mies Julie, the Baxter Theatre Centre/South African State Theatre’s production of Yael Farber’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie. It stars Hilde Cronje as Julie and Bongile Mantsai as John, who are the troubled couple at the centre of this super-charged tale of race, class and lust. For 90 minutes, we watch them play an explosive, dangerous game of cat and mouse that leaves us stunned and riveted to our seats with our mouths agape.
There are moments in the theatre when you witness a confluence of craft, hard work, emotion and artistry in which a mysterious perfection is attained; a creation takes on a curious life of its own, is greater than the sum of all its parts and somehow breaks down the invisible membrane that separates the observers from the actors. We watch in awe as a gesture, an expression, or a sound cuts right to the essence of human experience. We understand something deeper about ourselves and something greater about the world; in that moment of mysterious confluence, we are changed.
We might not always be conscious of it, but I believe this is why, ultimately, we choose to sit together in a darkened space and watch our fellow humans tell us stories about ourselves. We want to understand ourselves better, feel heightened emotion, share in catharsis. The theatre, when it is honest, specific and brave, can shake us to the core. Mies Juliei’s impact is seismic.
More to the point, there’s nothing like it happening in Perth theatre at the moment, so we are incredibly fortunate that PIAF has brought this astounding work to our city. Simply put, it should be seen. It may be difficult for many patrons to digest, it might not be to everyone’s taste; there is sex, violence and language and this company does not hold back. The style is also extremely intense; the language dictates a heightened dramatic style and the movement is precisely choreographed to the point of approaching contemporary dance theatre.
However, I can’t classify this piece as stylised. Although it is probably quite far from Strindberg’s naturalistic vision, it nevertheless retains an essential veracity that keeps it from wandering off into the territory of ‘art for art’s sake’. There is a thumping, growling heart to the work, due in large part to the tireless and unflinching commitment of the performers. Their blood, sweat and tears pour out and imbue the show with an elemental nature. Something primal is unleashed from them before our eyes and we can’t look away. They compel us to watch the self-destruction of their precariously structured lives, which in turn demonstrates universal truths about imbalanced societies the world over.
This is political theatre that doesn’t lecture or preach. The questions it provokes about race, class and gender emerge through the three characters’ struggles to come to terms with themselves and each other in this harrowing moment. Christine’s (the mother, played by Thoko Ntshinga) struggle to maintain tradition and keep her son from breaking away is beautifully sad. She is haunted by the vision of her ancestor, played by traditional musician Tandiwe Lungisa, who brings additional sound to the piece as she circles the scene.
The actors are accompanied by two musicians (Braydon Bolton and Mark Fransman) who are just barely visible offstage, one playing saxophone and the other cuing up the rich soundscape composed by Daniel and Matthew Pencer. The music and sound is a constant undercurrent that never intrudes or supplants the raw emotional power of the action on stage, it is only there to enhance our sensory experience.
I could easily continue with my analysis and praise of the performance, but instead I will conclude by saying again simply put, it should be seen.