“Tense” is the word that comes to mind when I recall Shakespeare Theatre Company’s production of Mies Julie. Whether it was the ominous feeling that was palpable from the moment you walk in the theater due to the misting smoke in combination with the ominous tones produced from the saxophone, or the immediately present sexual/bitter tension between the three characters that appear on stage, or even the contracting muscles of those actors who almost seem to be performing a dance with one another.
For a play about gender, class and race in post-Apartheid South Africa, Mies Julie seems to hit all the most wrought notes without much release. So like I said: tense. The layered, complex, and dark tale that is portrayed is acted with extreme emotion and strength. I was utterly compelled from beginning to end, straining to hear and dissect every word while fighting an urge to turn away in response to the impossible situations that produced even more destructive outcomes. It’s difficult for me to describe my feelings toward Mies Julie in simple terms like “I liked it,” though I did, but it would be more apt to say that I thought the performance was breathtaking in the best and most complicated sense of the word.
I don’t even want to attempt to summarize Mies Julie, but in an attempt to get you to go see this play (GO SEE THIS PLAY) I’ll say this: this is a play about Mies Julie and two workers on her estate (John and his mother Christine) who are trying to come to grips with what their stations are in the “new” South Africa, how to get handle on their relationships and their feelings for one another, and deal with the presence of the unmitigated past as it seeps into every aspect of their being. This hardly puts a dent in what this play is about but for the sake of space, I’ll focus on this.
The story is told during the night of the annual Freedom day celebrations, which creates both exaltation and unrest for our three characters. Christine, a product of an older generation, is complacent in her role as housekeeper for her Afrikaans master and feels deep ties to the place that are in reference both to her loyalty to her master and deep family roots that tie her to the land—literally. There are several strong metaphors for these roots, the most present of which are the roots of a tree that is a grave marker for her ancestors that grow under the kitchen floor. We learn that Christine has a tendency to break the kitchen floor in an attempt to free the roots even thought her urge toward tidiness and obedience causes hesitance. It’s pretty clear what that all means. Meanwhile, John tries to settle his desire for something more than the life he was born into with his upbringing as a servant. John’s strength is evident both in his bodily appearance and in the way her carries out his duties. I never knew cleaning shoes could be such a physical activity until I saw him put so much energy and emotion into the task. Almost everything he did or said clearly conveyed this level of bitterness. Julie also has complicated feelings toward her higher station, because while she certainly commands in a way that is confident in her role as mistress but there is also an obvious desire to be a part of the Freedom Day festivities happening outside the walls of the kitchen. All of these elements work to establish and even foreshadow their relationships with one another.
(Hilda Cronje, Bongile Mantsai and Thoko Ntshinga, Hilda Cronje / by Rodger Bosch)
Focusing on the main relationship in the play: Julie and John are in love with each other but they also have trouble resolving feelings of bitterness and anger toward one another. I’ll just say (without giving too much away) that theirs is a love story in the vein of Romeo and Juliet on steroids. It’s got all the familial conflict and class conflict but with an added element of race and shifting political tides. When Julie and John are on stage together you could cut the sexual tension with a knife, all those stolen glances and contracting muscles and giving each other orders is anything but subtle.
This is one of the best-acted and most complicated storylines that I have seen anywhere in a long time. While it is definitely safe to say that the actors displayed all of these emotions expertly, I think the staging also played a key role in this toiled romance. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of the blocking read like a dance. A super sexual and forbidden-love dance that incorporated violence and mixed feelings. But it was a dance nonetheless, and it was constantly throwing the lovers together making it clear that both of them were powerless to stop it and it could only end in a night of serious passion and more violence.
The issue of the ever-present past permeated everything in this production. It was the source of anger that drove a wedge between Julie and John and it was the conflict driving the narrative as a whole. The constant stream of smoke gave the play a mystical quality that reminded the audience that there were ancestral forces at play while also inhabiting the psyche of the characters, sometimes literally possessing them. The character of the spirit woman, who was on stage for the entire performance without interacting with the live characters, added to the feeling the smoke created by performing music and song that also signified a strong presence of the past. The reminder of her presence would follow the moments when the past was most palpable in the narrative to underscore the idea that the past was just as much of a character in this play than Julie, John, or Christine.
With the bare bones set and subtle scoring in Mies Julie, it left room for the powerhouse performances from all the actors on stage that was so emotionally draining for me I can’t even imagine having to be the one performing. Again, this all comes down to the creation of a feeling of tension, because this is a story without a resolution and it ends at the most climactic moment. With John’s arms above his head carrying a rifle and a sickle and proclaiming, “It’s easy. Just pretend like you’re him” the audience is left to decide what his next action will be, knowing that the theme of bitterness and stolen opportunity will likely imitate its violent past.