"Probing into the issues of ownership, power, sexuality and memories in her adaptation of August Strindberg's classic, award-winning director Yäel Farber presents in Mies Julie a provocative examination of the post-traumatic society in South Africa today."
Indeed, the adjectives of "provocative" and "traumatic" best encapsulate the electrifying impact on the heart and mind of watching Mies Julie. At least these words work for me perfectly well. While scenes of explicit sexuality and violence were expected, I was stunned seeing them live, right before my eyes. Those scenes set in so naturally as part of the escalating tensions in the plot that most spectators would have little problem anticipating. Yet those scenes were presented in such intimidating intensity and magnitude rarely seen in the Chinese theatre, traditional or modern.
Better still, the embarrassingly upfront presentation of sexuality and violence on stage managed to go beyond sensationalism and touch upon the hearts and minds of the audience, inviting them to probe into the issues of race, gender, ownership, colonialism and politics of all these and so on. Even one who knows little about the history of South Africa may find such an invitation too compelling to decline.
In fact, one does not need much knowledge of apartheid and the colonial history of South Africa to appreciate Mies Julie. Based on August Strindberg's play Miss Julie written in 1888, Farber relocated the story to post-apartheid South Africa, where, in the sarcastic and scornful words of John, the male protagonist, "nothing has changed". The complex power relationships of gender, social status, love and lust in the original work were expanded and elaborated, blending with the issues of race, history, colonialism, indigenous and foreign cultures in Farber's adaptation. On each single issue, the politics of power at play seems quite simple and straightforward. For example, on the gender issue, John is presumably more powerful because he is a man; and Julie is the "second sex". But on the race issue, power changes hands because John is black. In terms of social status, power turns against John once again because he works for Julie's father, so does his mother. In terms of love and lust, the relationship becomes even more complicated and intriguing. Apparently it is Julie who takes the initiative to seduce John in the beginning, but John turns out to be the decision-maker of their common future despite Julie's attempt to persuade him to take her course. It also seems they can't really tell whether it is genuine love that bonds them, or the thirst for company in overwhelming desperation and loneliness. When all these sophisticated and volatile relationships add up and interplay with each other, however, an eruption of conflicts that have been subdued for too long is just inevitable.
In a nutshell, Mies Julie is a brilliant and profound challenge to the heart and mind of the audience. The brutal past of humanity and its impact today are boldly presented without much reservation, if any at all. The more disturbing or even outrageous one finds the performance, the more successful it is because such displeasure reflects how much distress and frustration such a traumatic society has endured. Farber did a great job in coming up with a succinct, powerful script that skilfully weaves together all the complicated issues plaguing South Africa. Her veteran performers and production crew also deserve a big applause for bringing the masterpiece to life.
On a final note, from my limited experience with Chinese and Hong Kong theatre, what makes Mies Julie successful is exactly what we are short on – the capability of articulating certain themes and messages in considerable depth and strength with an intact plot. Too often our theatre stops short of challenging the audience's mind, or fails to convey the messages in an organic, sensible manner, so that the play is both entertaining and thought-provoking. Too much emphasis has been put on pleasing the senses but little else. Is this attributable to any fundamental difference between the Chinese and Western theatre?