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New Masters in the House

Published in The Sunday Independent, Johannesburg (ZA), 18st August, 2013.

African stories find relevance in European stages writes Aksu Piippo

The Baxter Theater Company (South Africa): Mies Julie. Text: August Strindberg, Directed by Yaël Farber.

Proton Theater (Hungary): Disgrace. Based upon J.M.Coetzee’s novel, directed by Kornél Mundruczo

The warmth and humidity of the Nordic summer weather seemed to underline the inner quality of the Mies Julie performance when the Cape Town-based ensemble of Baxter Theater Company stopped in Tampere, Finland, on their international tour.  

The play, directed and adapted by Yaël Farber, celebrated another success at the Tampere Theatre Festival, which is the oldest and the largest professional theatre festival in the Nordic countries. Every year, approximately 25 theatre companies are invited to perform in Tampere. Besides the South African and domestic Finnish guests, among this year’s setting there were international performances from Italy, Latvia, Hungary, Sweden and the United Kingdom.

In the praised Baxter Theatre production, Swedish August Strindberg’s classical 19th century drama about love, class division and madness is amalgamated with South African modern day reality. A farm kitchen turns to a battleground of sexes, land ownership issues and hate caused by a long-stewed concoction of racism, inequalities and wrongdoing. All this is mixed with drops of lustful magnetism and a possibility of true love.

While the South African performers of Mies Julie offered the festival audience a compelling, hot and sweaty experience, the Finnish public gave a very warm and thankful stance to them in return.

“The performance is theatrically stylish and beautiful and it contains astonishing artistic skill. It is directed in very strict, almost choreographic way”, sais Johanna Freundlich, a member of the festival artistic leader troika, a theatre director who saw Mies Julie  at the Edinburgh Fringe festival last year and decided to bring the play to the festival in Tampere. “At the same time it is bare, raw and honest. When someone exposes themselves like that, it feels almost always recognisable. Hilda Cronje as Julie avoids the clichés of the Strindbergian female character. She pictures Julie in a multifaceted and complex way. For me, as a female theatre maker, that is very appealing.”

When it comes to the history of theatre and drama, the Nordic countries are usually characterised as the homelands of realistic psychological drama, such as Strindberg’s Miss Julie originally is. But that seems not to be a problem. It is clear that we are not having a midsummer eve party in a Swedish farm anymore.

“To me, this is the perfect way to stage this particular play”, tells Auvo Vihro, another member of artistic leadership, a distinguished actor himself.

The reviews sing a same kind of a story. “Bongile Mantsai’s moves are astounding and graceful. No performance could be any more compelling”, writes Aamulehti, second-biggest daily newspaper in Finland, published locally in Tampere. Turun Sanomat, another big provincial paper joins the chorus: “All the actors do a great work. They throw themselves to the roles with such high intensity and fury that it makes one feel this is happening right here and right now.” And the same goes on in all the media that covers the festival. “The actors spout their lines with spit and tails of fire. It has to be said that their physics and their chemistry go together graciously”, writes Demokraatti, a 5-day tribune newspaper.

But wait, what is the story behind this? What are the elements that make this South African production so well received in Europe? 

And yet there is another South African based story onstage in this very same festival. The Proton Theater of Budapest, Hungary, has produced an adaptation of J.M.Coetzee’s novel, Disgrace. The performance, that has been adapted and directed by Kornél Mundruczo, also known as a film-director, has celebrated success wherever it has been built on stage. 

The stage on which Disgrace is set contains a huge structure of rebar, wood and metal cages. The floor is covered with ten centimeter layer of dirt and a plane built of wooden pallets. The performance starts in a disturbing way. It begins with a long scene of rape. Just like in Mies Julie, sex is used as an instrument of a power struggle. This is the only part where the chronological order is changed compared to the Coetzee’s novel. This is the same story, but somehow we know that this is not just about the life in South Africa. This is anywhere. Anywhere in modern Europe.

The actors give themselves to the world created on the stage. We see sincerity and bareness with a unique, grotesque twist. Every minute is filled with a sense of danger. The character of professor David Lurie loses podium to his daughter Lucy, who is courageously played by Orsi Tóth.

The performance is full of cultural references, gags and associations. The richness of the visual side is contrary to the thematic conclusion that everything is broken into smithereens. There are new masters in the house, and Lucy represents those who resignate in front of the new regime.

Lucy (of Disgrace) and Julie (of Mies Julie) are related characters. They both are lonely and somehow broken creatures. They both are symbols of land to be seeded, they represent a whole nation. But at the same they represent true female human beings, a colonized body of women, in all times in history, everywhere. The leading male characters of these stories come from different backgrounds, but both clash towards a wall built of their own desires and end up with nothing left.

The best stories have no borders. Here at this festival, we can see a North European story adapted in the South African society, and a South African story staged in a European context. Above all, we can see a human being. A fragile human being.

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