A playwright’s arsenal should include a kind of temperature-sensor-and-homing device. Such, at least, is the philosophy of Yael Farber, the dramatist and director whose adaptation “Mies Julie” is arriving at the Shakespeare Theatre Company after earning raves on the international circuit.
“My task always is to see where the heat lies inside a narrative, and then to go there,” the South African artist says.
That impulse to bring a story’s blistering side to the fore guided Farber’s reworking of Swedish playwright August Strindberg’s 1888 “Miss Julie,” a tale of class, gender and sexual tension that was so controversial in its time that its original premiere was banned. Preserving the spine of Strindberg’s story — a merciless account of seduction and power struggle between a woman and a man of different social degrees — Farber moved the action to a rural estate in the Karoo region of South Africa, 18 years after the end of apartheid.
In her play, whose dialogue is almost entirely original (Farber says she kept a line or two of straight Strindberg), a kitchen on the estate becomes the site of an erotically charged encounter between Julie, a young Afrikaans woman whose family owns the property, and John, a Xhosa laborer who works for her father. Exacerbating the scenario’s tension is a brooding awareness of the past: The kitchen lies over the ancestral burial ground where John’s forebears are interred. Moreover, the couple’s fateful skirmish coincides with Freedom Day, contemporary South Africa’s annual commemoration of the 1994 democratic election that resulted in Nelson Mandela’s becoming president.
“It’s very strong. It’s very brutal. It’s very in-your-face,” Michael Kahn, artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, says of “Mies Julie.” It is running at the Lansburgh Theatre on Nov. 9-24, directed by Farber and presented by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in association with the South African State Theatre.
The production arrives in D.C. after a sold-out run at the 2012 Edinburgh Festival Fringe and an engagement at St. Ann’s Warehouse in New York, where Kahn saw it. In his view, Farber’s production restores the lightning-rod quality that “Miss Julie” had in the late 19th century. Over the years, as the world changed, Strindberg’s play lost that raw power, even as the script became an acknowledged classic, Kahn observes. This adaptation restores the story’s “surprise and shock,” he says.
Farber, raised in Johannesburg, felt her vision of “Mies Julie” develop in a “slow burn” of creativity, beginning a few years ago, when she was head of the National Theatre School of Canada’s directing program. Frustration with a student attempt at staging “Miss Julie” gave her an urge to interpret the piece herself, she said in a recent phone interview from Montreal, where she has lived for eight years.
She had built a reputation, in South Africa and beyond, with no-holds-barred scripts and productions that often reflected challenging sociopolitical realities, including the legacy and aftermath of apartheid. “Molora,” her reinvention of Aeschylus’s “The Oresteia,” incorporated traditional Xhosa musicians, as well as references to South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission. “SeZar,” an African adaptation of “Julius Caesar,” fused Elizabethan verse to dialogue in Zulu, Tswana and other African languages. (More recently, Farber has written “Nirbhaya,” a play about the 2012 gang rape on a New Delhi bus that sparked protests in India and gained international attention.)
While adapting “Miss Julie,” Farber realized that she didn’t want to foreground the fact that her protagonists are of different races, because interracial relationships are “not so shocking” in South Africa today. (In 1985, a South African production of “Miss Julie” featuring a black actor and a white actress was hugely controversial in the country, provoking audience walkouts and earning death threats for the performers.)
Instead, Farber wanted to highlight the question of land ownership, which she believes to be “the really vibrating, volatile issue” in South Africa today. It’s an issue rendered painful by the specifics of history: Colonialism and, subsequently, apartheid’s system of white privilege had a deep effect on property-ownership patterns in South Africa.
So Farber, who is in her early 40s, wrote the bit of back story involving the burial ground into “Mies Julie.” (The Afrikaans term “Mies” implies a degree of deference to a social superior.) In another adjustment, she turned Christine — a character who, in Strindberg’s play, was John’s fiancee — into John’s mother, who serves as a domestic on the estate; it’s a twist that, again, emphasizes the motif of birthright and history.
Julie’s father owns the estate, but John and Christine’s family has lived on it far longer. That dilemma “kind of encapsulates the enormous complication of land in South Africa” and the “hopelessness of trying to untangle that knot — the essentiality of trying to untangle that knot,” Farber says.
The topic of land is “a very sensitive issue” in South Africa, agrees Thoko Ntshinga, the actress who plays Christine in “Mies Julie.” The actress, reached by phone in Cape Town, noted that she had recently been watching news coverage of the Economic Freedom Fighters, a political party that was launched in South Africa in October and whose platform includes a proposed redistribution of land.
“Land will always be an issue in South Africa,” Ntshinga says. “Whose land is it? Who belongs to South Africa?”
The script’s concern with those questions — and with broader matters of inequality and the burden of the past — makes acting in “Mies Julie” a particularly intense experience, says Bongile Mantsai, who plays John. (Hilda Cronje portrays the show’s title character.)
“The hardest thing about it is you see the continuation” of the play’s issues in the country today, Mantsai said, also speaking from Cape Town.
“When you touch a wound — that’s what we always say: We are dealing with a wound — you are touching a very sensitive thing,” he adds.
Farber says she was struck by the way American audiences, for their part, seemed to focus on the interracial-relationship aspect of “Mies Julie” during the play’s engagement in New York. When that theme “started to come to the forefront of the commentary about the work in America, I didn’t feel that [audiences and critics] hadn’t understood,” Farber says. “I just felt that an American audience was going where their stories reside. That interracial aspect of it was so powerful to an American audience. I thought it was very revealing.”
And, after all, Farber points out, “theater is always about holding up a mirror.”
Wren is a freelance writer.
Written and directed by Yael Farber, based on August Strindberg’s “Miss Julie.” Presented by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in association with the South African State Theatre. Nov. 9-24 at the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s Lansburgh Theatre, 450 7th Street NW, Washington. Call 202-547-1122 or visit www.shakespearetheatre.org.