On Tuesday night, it was a clear and calm evening by the waterfront—a little warm, even. It was a hint of what (we’re hoping) is in store for us this summer, and created a serene and restful atmosphere.
That feeling was promptly destroyed by the production currently playing at the Harbourfront Centre’s Enwave Theatre, Yael Farber’s Mies Julie. It’s angering, devastating, and terrifying—but in the best way possible.
South African artist Farber, former playwright in residence at Toronto’s Nightwood Theatre and head of directing at Montreal’s National Theatre School, has had huge international success as writer and director of this Strindberg adaptation, which changes the story’s setting from an estate in 1888 Sweden to a farm in the barren Karoo desert 20 years after apartheid. It received rave reviews during the 2012 Edinburgh Festival and stints in Cape Town, London, New York, and most recently, Vancouver. Its brief run in Toronto provides audiences with the welcome opportunity to see a lean production actually live up to the term “powerhouse.”
On the Veenen Plaas estate, landowner’s daughter Julie (Hilda Cronje) escapes from a raucous party being held by her father’s black employees to find John (Bongile Mantsai) and his mother Christine (Zoleka Helesi) still at work in the kitchen. Julie has been contending with a broken engagement and a violent father; John is at an emotional breaking point because of his family’s lack of personal or social authority. Both find themselves under the influence of years of sexual tension and a little wine. What follows is an explosive night that tests Julie and John’s sexual, social, and physical power over one another. And once they cross the line during what John calls a “futureless night,” they’re faced with uncertainty not only about their own relationship, but also about their identities as oppressor or oppressed, thief or victim.
The performances from Mantsai and Cronje are incredibly physical, and as the tension escalates, so too does their willingness to use their bodies as well as their arguments to overpower each other. At first, they dance around each other (at one point, they literally dance), while Julie plays coy and John plays the gentleman—but even then, their physicality is fast, deliberate, and strong. Sometimes this comes off slightly overemphasized or melodramatic, as when Julie stomps from one end of the stage to the other with no apparent purpose, but it all makes sense once we know the level of exhaustion they must reach.
In the end, both are emotionally defeated, but there’s one final moment that really drives home the desperation of their situation. And when it came, it was met with audible gasps from the audience.
Though that moment (no spoilers) is shocking, it wasn’t entirely unpredictable. The set design is simple but foreshadows the horror to come. The audience files in through heavy fog—or perhaps mist, in that we’re now in the middle of a hot, humid evening as a Freedom Day party rages outside, unseen. On the red-tiled floor of the farmhouse kitchen are a dining table, a stove, a bench, a tree stump, a row of dirty black work boots, and a birdcage. As a native South African ancestor (Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa) sings a haunting chant, the play’s three characters enter holding heavy farm tools, all of which could be used as weapons. The set and props in Patrick Curtis’s design are key—each one has a bigger story to tell. The props also describe the characters: they don’t have many things, but what they do have carries weight that can’t be measured. Faber’s writing is just as powerful as the performances here, creating viscerally affecting moments and multidimensional characters.
It seemed much darker down by the waterfront when we exited the Enwave Theatre—and not only because the sun had set and the wind was cooler: we’d just seen a exceptional play, and its atmosphere remained with us.
This post originally spelled “Cape Town” as one word. We regret the error.