Mies Julie at Yale Summer Cabaret. Photographed by Yaara Bar.

Seeing Red

For Yale Summer Cabaret’s production of Mies Julie, the floor is painted red. The walls are red as well, creating a sunbaked look and conjuring the setting of South Africa. But the redness isn’t just evocative; it’s also practical.

It hides the blood.

Mies Julie is the third in the Cab’s summer remixes of classical plays. While the series is bookended by Shakespeare—Daily Nutmeg also covered an all-drag version of Antony and Cleopatra earlier in the season—this middle offering is a take on something a bit more recent than that: Miss Julie, a 19th-century Swedish play by August Strindberg.

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A Victorian-era meditation on class and sexual conflict, it provides the basis for Yaël Farber’s 2012 adaptation Mies Julie, which is in turn the basis for the Cab’s hourlong production directed by Rory Pelsue. Farber changes more than a few things, starting with the title’s deferential South African “Mies.” Along with moving the setting from a Swedish manor to a farmstead in South Africa, the timing has also shifted. Instead of Midsummer’s Eve sometime in the 1880s, it’s Freedom Day 2012, and offstage the anniversary of the country’s enfranchisement of blacks is being celebrated. Moreover, Farber adds complicating factors of race and colonialism to the original’s maelstrom of class and gender warfare.

Even with the Cabaret’s tables and chairs clustered close to the stage, the set seems wide open. That’s partly because the characters number only four: Julie (Marié Botha), the white heir to the farm; John (James Udom), a black farm worker from the Xhosa ethnic group; Christine (Kineta Kunutu), his mother; and Ukhokho (Amandla Jahava), an ancestral spirit of John and Christine’s family. The actors rarely leave the stage at the end of their scenes, instead hovering on the edges until it’s their turn to rejoin. It’s a testament to the intensity of each performance that if anyone is lurking off to the side, you hardly notice.

All the action of the play happens in the kitchen of a farm house somewhere in Karoo, South Africa, surrounded by open country. But just as important as place is time. The play occupies two planes of existence, one nebulously now and the other tenuously past. A gnarled clump of roots clusters in a corner, a vestige of a tree planted on Ukhokho’s grave, just one of many buried beneath the floor. Jahava’s Ukhokho stalks the stage, her presence looming large while being invisible—most of the time—to the other characters. Like the legacy it symbolizes, the roots of the tree are trying to burst through the kitchen floor, not to be denied any longer.

The other three characters, in contrast to Ukhokho’s otherworldly poise, are suffering: Christine physically, Julie mentally, John spiritually. Botha as Julie is jaw-droppingly willful, her every word speaking to the character’s desire of cementing her claim not only to the land, but also to the love and devotion of family employees John and Christine who wait on her hand and literally foot. Drawing a gasp from the crowd, Julie highlights his ostensible post-Apartheid freedom only to twist the knife of his subservience, demanding that John, her employee, kiss her on the foot or face the consequences.

John, on the other hand, is a man driven past patience. Romantically pursued by a bored, drunk Julie, he oscillates between feelings of love and loathing. John’s air of self-protective nonchalance quickly fades in the face of Julie’s attacks, and soon he’s trading barbed words with her, even though, at least at the beginning, he looks horrified at the prospect of endangering the livelihoods of himself and his mother.

Julie’s father and John’s ultimate boss, though he never appears, is a looming presence. When John is lamenting poor land squatters being driven off the property, Julie is coy—“I don’t agree with how my father is doing it. I’m not like him, you know”—to which John is properly incredulous. Julie has no compunctions about using her class, race and gender to get what she wants. Even though she is nearly as trapped as John is upon the farm, she still always has power over him, which she exploits until the end, and what an end it is.

It’s worth noting that this is not a play for the squeamish. There’s explicit sex, and as for violence, the blood flows in buckets. At the end of my showing, the audience member in front of me revealed he had gotten spattered. A Cabaret staff member hurried to assure him that the blood was made of detergent and would wash away easily.

If only it were so easy for Julie and John.

Mies Julie
Yale Summer Cabaret – 217 Park St, New Haven (map)
Showtimes through July 23
(203) 432-1566 | summer.cabaret@yale.edu

Written by Anne Ewbank. Photographed by Yaara Bar. Photo 1 depicts Amandla Jahava (Ukhokho) and Marié Botha (Julie). Photo 2 depicts James Udom (John), Kineta Kunutu (Christine) and Jahava.

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