By Peter Tromp
Anybody who has seen Bongile Mantsai on stage will attest to the actor possessing a particularly magnetic presence, and on the day I meet the guy at the Baxter for an interview, that presence is amplified by perhaps the largest and most complex looking wristwatch I have ever seen. That watch was a gift from friends after the actor returned home from the UK after an 11 week tour with ‘Mies Julie’, Yael Farber’s controversial play that had international critics reaching for the superlatives wherever it played. Although Mantsai only had a couple weeks worth of rest after that gruelling international commitment and is ostensibly in need of a proper vacation, he seems fresh and ready for this latest adventure, the homecoming of ‘Mies Julie’, buoyed no doubt by the rapturous response the play garnered overseas. “11 weeks can be a nightmare if the people don’t come, but fortunately they did and we got stronger and stronger,” he says.
‘Mies Julie’ is a modernised adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 classic ‘Miss Julie’ set in the rural Eastern Cape Karoo where issues of land and the sins of the past remain explosive subjects, ready to ignite at any moment. Mantsai plays John, a disenfranchised young adult who has deep rooted longings and questions tugging at him throughout the play. At times disturbing, but always fascinating, it is an emotional roller coaster for the audience and you can’t help but be affected by it, whether you end up liking it or not. I cannot imagine how taxing it must be on the actors, but one thing that has kept Mantsai energised is that it has been exceedingly challenging to nail a perfect register. “What keeps it all interesting is that you never know what to expect. It has been a proper journey; one that is still continuing. It’s a very powerful piece; very unapologetic.
You’re scrubbing away at a wound, and it leaves you vulnerable in the process, especially in the way people respond.” Although he has already been recognised in Cape Town with a Fleur du Cap nomination for his performance, for Mantsai the character is a continually evolving one, the delivery of which changes from night to night depending on the notes the ensemble hit together. “When I look at John, there are nights I get too angry, and then afterwards I think, ‘Did I go too far?’ There’s a lot that triggers the character, and sometimes the intensity varies. When I look at him, sometimes I’m not even sure if it’s anger necessarily, but certainly there’s mixed feelings about the past.”
Anybody who has seen play will attest to the incredible chemistry that exists between Mantsai and co-star Hilda Cronje, and one thing that has come up in interviews so far is whether the two are a couple.
I’m reluctant to push the matter too far, because this line of probing inevitably feels like tabloid reporting. What is clear from Mantsai is that the only thing that should matter to the audience is the end product. “One thing we agreed on from the start was that in order to tell this story in a truthful manner, we need to strip ourselves bare, emotionally. That honesty is the only thing that matters. I understand people’s curiosity, but to me it’s more because the work moved them.”
* ‘Mies Julie’ is showing at the Baxter Flipside until July 6. Book at Computicket.