PETER TROMP spoke to South African-born and internationally acclaimed director YAEL FARBER about her new play ‘Mies Julie’ at the Baxter.
When did your love for the arts originate?
I’m not sure. The best way to answer that is to say that I was always an escape artist. And my method of escape was story. As a child I was a voracious reader. I would walk everywhere without looking up from the page. I would read under the desk in class. To this day, I cross roads without taking my nose out of the book. I was always transported into other places and worlds. I found theatre as an early teenager at The Market Theatre. I remember sitting in The Lager in my school uniform, watching ‘Woza Albert’ in the bleak 80s in South Africa and feeling like this was the only place someone was telling me the truth. It was thrilling and potent – feeling the blast of reality watching Protest Theatre in those days. It was there that I think I began to understand that stories are a way of transporting you into another world, but sometimes those other worlds had the power to wake you up to truth. And so the escape of storytelling became rather the lucid state that story can render. The electricity I felt inside that discovery has never gone away.
What are a few of your personal highlights thus far?
Each production in the last decade of me creating new material, rather than directing existing untouched text, has been an extraordinary road of discovery. Ever humbling and ever exhilarating, theatre is a demanding beast if you are hell bent on doing it well. It asks (to quote T.S Eliot) “the state of simplicity, costing nothing less than everything.” So many moments come to mind. One of them was the night we opened ‘Molora’ (my adaptation of the Oresteia Trilogy – set in the Truth Commission) in Hamburg, Germany. The audience was silent. We thought we had bombed. And then they slowly stood in silence and began to clap and then brought us back for 13 curtain calls. It was remarkable. During the post-show talk that night, one of the audience members spoke about his father being an SS Guard in the Concentration Camps and how the production left him wishing he could talk with his dead father and open the questions he had that were buried. It was a powerful night. On the production ‘He Left Quietly’ that I created with Duma Kumalo about his time on Death Roy, I learnt more in that room with him than I can write about. Each production has brought me the gift of being in the room with exceptional things unfolding around me. The ‘Mies Julie’ process has so far been so rich and the actors so potently brave that I continue to be thankful that I found this thing called theatre.
Tell us about ‘Mies Julie’. What can audiences look forward to with the show?
It’s a tough, no holds barred piece of theatre. I believe we have created a strong theatrical experience that is compelling, sensuous and raw. The urgency and immediacy of the story as it has been reworked asks everything from the audience, but it gives everything too. This version of Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ has been rewritten to capture the incredible complexity, beauty, tenderness, brutality and possibility that we are capable of as South Africans.
Why did you decide to do a new adaptation of the original play?
Strindberg’s original ‘Miss Julie’ was a piece that created great controversy in its time. It remains a compelling examination of the power dynamics between classes and genders. It struck me as a good palette upon which to look at some of the emerging issues that exist between South Africans; the shifts as well as the stagnations of who holds the power. Power comes in many forms. In the economic sense, this is intrinsically tied up with who owns the land and how this has failed to be addressed in the emerging new vision for the country. I wanted to create a work that captures this and the other subtle forms of complicated colonizing that occurred as a result of apartheid. ‘Miss Julie’ allows me to explore what Greek Tragedy offers: the palette of the national within the realm of the personal and domestic.
This play attracted great controversy during the apartheid years. How different do you think the political climate is today?
Sexual relations across the colour line – while still interesting and/or shocking for some – is hardly the shocker, not to mention law breaker, that it once was in South Africa. I don’t believe that this is the compelling point of a ‘Miss Julie’ in contemporary South Africa. Land issues, ownership, power, sexuality, mothers, memories – these are what remain as shrapnel from our history. The battle of these primal issues in a kitchen over a single night between a farm labourer and his Baas’s daughter is what ‘Mies Julie’ has its hand in. Kitchens are places of steam and heat and making and devouring and talking. We aim for this ‘Mies Julie’ to bring the heat to the fore in all senses in order to address what is truly pressing today in this country. The issue of a redistribution of wealth (land, essentially) and restitution of the facets of a society that enable individuals and communities to rise above the cycles of poverty by means of education, capital in one form or another – these are the explosive pivotal issues that South Africa faces – and it is these issues (amongst others) that ‘Mies Julie’ explores.
What elements need to be in place for you to commit to seeing a new play through? In other words, what are some of your enduring fascinations?
I remain compelled by stories about injustice and how this reveals people in extreme ways. If it is a story that takes us into a deeper and more complex understanding of ourselves and others, I have the conviction and passion to be in that room.
What are among the challenges and hurdles, creatively and practically, in being a fulltime theatre artist these days?
Money! Being a mother now, it’s not the “eat hard bread but do what I love” abandon that was the case before I had a little one. That gets hard. But I do find that if you commit yourself to other endeavours in order to pay bills, those “on the side” compromises tend to take over. So finding the balance is tricky.
What do you love about the theatre world in Cape Town, and elsewhere in South Africa?
There is nothing like getting back in the room with South African artists to create. I find that nowhere in the world is there the kind of passion and soul present here. Theatre – if done well – has the power to take us forward. There is an urgency in the mandate here that I find I miss elsewhere.
Finally, what can we expect from you in the near future?
I created a new work called ‘Kadmos’ in Montreal, Canada, which will be produced in Toronto next year. It is an adaptation of Sophocles’ ‘Theban Plays’. The adaptation explores America’s foreign policy. I hope this work will travel and reach these shores. I have several other projects that I will begin in the coming year, but my great hope is that some of my earlier works – like ‘Woman In Waiting’, ‘Amajuba’ and ‘Molora ‘– can reach a wider South African audience. We made those shows for South Africans, but they travelled widely internationally and I still hope a South African producer will pick them up in the cities they have not yet been seen in. My adaptation of ‘The Ramayana’ will be staged in New York City next year. And I am working on an adaptation of ‘King Lear’.
* Mies Julie is showing on the Flipside stage at the Baxter Theatre until Saturday August 4. Book at Computicket.