Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Sending a jolt through Mies Julie

Sex becomes violence, and violence sex, in Mies Julie.
To describe Mies Julie (at ArtsEmerson through this weekend) as "visceral" seems, well . . .

. . . like something of an understatement.

Indeed, in terms of physical impact it clears the rest of the season off the stage. This isn't just the most visceral performance of the year; Mies Julie may be the most visceral performance Boston has ever seen. Its striking lead actors, Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai, are committed to their roles to a frightening degree - they tear off their clothes with abandon, and at times grope their way to the edge of live sex. Or do I mean rape? For the whole show is close to a cage-match: the actors howl and weep, brandish weapons, struggle and thrash, slap and strike and spit at each other. A bucket of blood coats the floor at the finale, and the heroine commits suicide with a meat hook to her vagina.

All in 90 action-packed minutes.

It ain't The Nutcracker.

Of course August Strindberg's Miss Julie actually was a kind of nutcracker - although I guess "ball-breaker" is the coarser, more popular term. Indeed, Strindberg's notorious anti-heroine almost viciously limned the intersection of class, sex, and gender a century ago - and was banned from the stage for years as a result. The original, post-Victorian (but not quite modern) Julie, having been dumped by a fiancé who's leery of her way with a riding crop, attempts in her frustration to erotically humiliate a servant (the calculating young Jean), but discovers, once she has passed the point of no sexual return, that gender trumps class, and her life has been ruined by her dalliance. So she exits stage left, with a straight razor in hand helpfully supplied by her conquest.

Today, of course, Strindberg's corrosive little tragedy carries a nearly misogynist tang (like so much of that sad author's work), but its shocks do feel dated in the age of Miley Cyrus. His heroine offs herself offstage (if she actually offs herself at all; her death is implied, not stated), and does the nasty in the wings as well. The stage action is oblique, and consists almost entirely of dialogue.

Needless to say, South African adaptor/author Yaël Farber has pushed all the turmoil front and center (absolutely nothing is "suggested" in Mies Julie) and, understandably enough, has focused her text on race, and the legacy of apartheid, rather than on class (gender is still very much in play). Farber does hang on to most of the stage events of the original, but has replaced Jean's fiancée with his mother (the eloquent Thoko Ntshinga), and has subtly transformed Strindberg's villains - and they are both villains to some degree - into victims. 

For Farber's "John" and "Julie" seem engaged more in a ritual attempt to slake the landscape's vengeful thirst for blood than a personal game of one-upmanship (we even learn that John's dispossessed ancestors are buried under the set's floorboards). The sins of the white fathers loom large in Mies Julie, and all but dwarf the sins of their daughters (indeed, Julie may not be racist at all). More intriguingly, we can feel the damaged, bitter masculine ethos of Strindberg has been subtly reversed in this textual variant (it's hardly an adaptation); in Mies Julie, Farber conjures a damaged, bitter feminine ethos - misogyny has been replaced by misandry.

Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje as John and Julie.
This, too, may be somewhat calculated - Ms. Farber expertly plays to the educated, feminist stalls while pretending to shock the groundlings.  Indeed, it may be telling that Strindberg's play was banned for decades, but Farber's - despite its brutal provocations - has been gathered to the bosom of the boho theatrical world, and showered with accolades. This may be because the South African setting shields us from the sting of Strindberg's acid; as in many an Athol Fugard vehicle, it's easy to tell yourself that Mies Julie isn't really about "us." The play is more in-your-face than ever, but it's actually less immediate.

And to be honest, there are all sorts of other formal issues at play in Mies Julie - I get the impression, for instance, that Ms. Farber is more an installation artist than a dramatist; her incantatory dialogue tends toward blunt declaration, and she stops dead for mystical interludes that would play as hilariously melodramatic if we weren't being pummeled by the sound design. And the performance is so constantly in extremis, and the violence and sex come at us so insistently, that things begin to blur together, and we lose track of structure or theme; the performance almost becomes an exercise in topping itself.

Still, in a theatrical culture that has become addicted to the morphine drip of uplift, it's bracing to see nihilistic abandon onstage, even if it's not actually telling us what we really need to hear.  And these performers have such authority that they brush aside any and all caveats in the heat of the moment.  Cronje reads as a compact, brutalized Charlotte Rampling, while Mantsai is an eloquent mix of Hercules and Ariel; both move like dancers (when Cronje extends a foot to be kissed she conveys animal grace rather than squalor), and both have at their command the aggressive chops of a martial arts expert. What's more, this pair sustain themselves at the razor's edge of emotional implosion (or explosion) for an hour and a half. It's exhausting just watching them. In terms of sheer physical (and poetic) force, they are peerless - they certainly have no local rivals. And as they utterly believe in Farber's vision, for a time you do, too.

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