When the personal is the political

A South African reimagining of the play Miss Julie has been wowing audiences around the world. Richard Fitzpatrick talks to the writer ahead of its Irish premiere.

THERE have been many versions of August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie, including a film adaptation in 1999 by Mike Figgis, and a recent Broadway production with Sienna Miller in the title role that relocated the action to post-war England.

Perhaps there is no better place to re-imagine the play, however, which was originally set in a Swedish count’s estate in the 1870s, and sprung from Strindberg’s uneven relationship with his aristocratic wife, than in modern-day South Africa. Certainly that’s the critics’ impression. Mies Julie has amassed more than 40 five-star reviews around the world since winning a Scotsman Fringe First award at last summer’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Yaël Farber, the writer and director of Mies Julie, which premieres in Ireland during the Galway Arts Festival, sets the story on a dusty farm in the Eastern Cape. The action takes place on Freedom Day, 27 April, 2012, the day that commemorates Nelson Mandela’s election as president in 1994, and the death knell of Apartheid, which had been in place since 1948.

“It’s an original text that enables one to look at the national through the personal, through what is a brilliant device — the unfolding of a relationship over a single night between a man and a woman. All the subtext gets unwrapped between them, and this just struck me as a very powerful way to speak about South Africa,” says Farber.

An electrical storm crackles, as the play’s two central characters circle each other. Mies Julie, played by Hilda Cronje, is the landholding Boer, flirtatious, self-destructive, and, as befits her class, haughty. “Do you feel free?” she asks John, who is her father’s favourite Xhosa servant. “Sure,” he replies. “Kiss my foot.”

Their squabbling over land rights is one of several undercurrents to their fraught relationship. When Julie gets sentimental about the farm, John says that it isn’t hers to love, in a heated exchange:

Julie: Says who? What makes it less mine than yours? Your black skin?

John: My people are buried here. Beneath this floor.

Julie: So are mine. Out there beneath the willow trees. Three generations back. Where the fuck do I go?

John: That’s not my problem. They stole it. Your people.

Julie: Fuck you. So did yours. From the first here. How far back do you want to go?

John: Let’s just say your people did things to keep it that can never be excused.

“The kind of mess that’s left in a post-colonial society is extraordinary,” says Farber. “I don’t think people have started to do the audit around the world on the pervading damage that has been done inside these societies.

“I feel particularly excited for the production to be coming to Ireland because it is the first country beside South Africa where we’re stepping into territory which can understand how life and death these issues can be, how deadly the battle can be for who owns the land.

“South Africa has changed in many different ways. It’s a very different country to the one I grew up in, but it depends on what level one expects a perforating change,” adds Farber, aged 42, who moved to Canada several years ago, having married someone from Montreal.

“The issues that lie at the base of the pyramid in terms of change would be the addressing of the vast disparity of wealth. This is all around land ownership. If I do a text I want to hit on the key issues that hold the heat inside a society. That struck me as the place where the greatest stagnation has happened. There is a very profound frustration that’s growing in the country in terms of the change not happening fast enough.

“There are many symptoms that show up, from the crime statistics, as well as sexual crimes against women, deaths on the roads. There’s a general malady inside the country. This is the result of half a century of fascism. There are also tectonic plates that are shifting, but there is a deep restlessness that asks: at what point are things going to change? Is it going to be in my lifetime? It’s a fair question to ask by people who have lived under oppression all their lives.”

The most significant alteration to Strindberg’s text that Farber makes is to change the character of Christine. Instead of being the servant’s fiancée (played, incidentally, by Maria Doyle Kennedy in the 1999 film version), Farber switches her role to being his mother, and, crucially, Julie’s former nanny, which makes siblings of the pair.

Christine’s fingers are so worn from work that when she goes to vote she can’t make a mark with her fingerprints to prove her identity, but it is nothing to her world-weariness. She could never be taken for a fool. When Julie, in the flush of lustful love, suggests that the three of them could be a family, Christine responds witheringly: “A family?”

“On farms in South Africa,” says Farber, “a lot of white and black kids grow up alongside each other, but the black children are destined to be labourers and the white children go on to be owners of the land or masters inside the system. It ups the stakes if John’s land has been taken from him and his mother has been taken from him.

“It was a situation we all grew up in. As a white child, it was very likely you could spend the first three years of your life, not just been looked after by this woman, but being wrapped on her back in a blanket. How much more intimate can you get? How much more primal is that connection yet within years, by the time you’re four of five, you already have power over that woman because you are white and she is black?

“I wanted to take all the electric livewires of that society and bring them into this kitchen and let them play out. There’s nothing like sex to strip away pretences.”

* Mies Julie is at Town Hall Theatre, Courthouse Square, Galway, 8pm, Mon, 22 Jul — Sun, 28 Jul (with an additional matinee performance, 2pm, Sat, 27 Jul).

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