Sunday, August 31, 2014

Theatre Review: "Mies Julie" Brings The Heat With A Fiery Performance about Race and Gender

The relentless sense of sweat-inducing heat of the semi-desert region of Karoo in South Africa, was felt right from the start as the play "Mies Julie" kicked off at DBS Art Centre

On stage, which was set as a farmhouse during Freedom Day, the very capable actors of the South African State Theatre played out the intense, erotic and ultimately tragic tale about a young white mistress and her affair with her African black male servant, John.

The classic play about the battle about power and control by Swedish playwright August Strindberg had now been spiritually rebirthed in another time and space. This version makes all the swirling emotions of the story even more relevant and illuminating, as writer-director Yael Farber brings it very close to heart and home by setting it in South Africa, when apartheid ended a mere 20 years ago.

There is no intermission during the performance of "Mies Julie". This helped the audience ride through the couple's whirlwind of emotions together with them - like a small boat caught in a tumultuous thunderstorm. From the dangerous flirtations between Julie and John, prowling and brushing against each other like wild creatures put together in a cage, to the revelations about their mothers and each other, and to the climatic raw and almost violent coupling when the thin thread of physical attraction snaps. As in such relationships, there was no happy ending.

Acting as the glue that holds the story together was John's mother Christine, who more often than not silently bore her life's burdens as she mourned for the loss of her identity - she had lost her fingerprints scrubbing and cleaning her master's floor - and her people's ancestral lands. Here was where irony played out as Christine clung to what she considers familiar - her belief in "a white man's religion" and not wanting to rock the boat of class structure by daring to dream of bigger things. It was also an interesting take on the character where motherhood comes into play, as in the original version, Christine was actually John's fiance.

Much credit has to be given to the lead actors who embodied a kind of erotic yet animalistic spirit while playing out their roles. Hilda Cronje is gorgeous as Mies Julie, flitting between haughty and desperately needy. Her athletic and sinewy limbs constantly glistening with perspiration, as she seethed with the sexual frustration that enveloped Julie, who fantasizes about escaping her current life. In turn, male lead Bongile Mantsai's stage presence was impressively muscular and powerful, drawing one's attentions to John's plaintive cry to make a better life for himself and his people. The chemistry between the two was electrifying.

Zoleka Helesi as Christine, was earthy and familiar, like most mamas are. Akin to a homecooked meal, she made the play's impending tragedy a little easier to swallow. Then, there was the haunting and hypnotic presence of Xhosa performer, Tandiwe "Nofirst" Lungisa, who wandered on and off stage, singing and playing indigenous musical instruments that helped summoned the evocative spirits of old.

Red Dot Diva thought the build-up to the dramatic fallout was magnificent. However, she felt that the play fell slightly short of more palpable emotions toward the ending. But perhaps, that was intended after all - the feeling of shock and numbness one faces after a tornado has worn out its own destructive power.

"Mies Julie" is a twisted, bloody and emotionally high-strung production. In the light of recent tensions like our own Little India riot and the current scene playing out in Ferguson, Missouri, Red Dot Diva can't help but wonder if there's much hope for the continuing tussle of race, power and class in the world today.

Don't miss watching "Mies Julie", presented by the Singapore Repertory Theatre at the DBS Arts Centre, from now till 13 September, 2014.

Note: This is a R18 production with some Sexual Content and Nudity.

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