THEATRE REVIEW: DAVID ZAMPATTI
Baxter Theatre Centre, University of Cape Town
Octagon Theatre, UWA
REVIEW: DAVID ZAMPATTI
Forty yeas ago, on this same Octagon Theatre stage, I saw Athol Fugard, John Kani and Winston Ntshona's pivotal anti-apartheid comedy, Sizwe Banzi Is Dead, and began a fascination with South African theatre that's stayed with me ever since.
I saw Sizwe Banzi 20 years before the machine of apartheid was finally run out of history. One of the purposes of South African playwright and director Yael Farber, in her adaptation of August Strindberg's play about class, carnality and its fatal consequences, is to question whether, another 20 years on, it has truly run out of steam.
The core mechanism of apartheid was to keep people apart, in chains if necessary. But now, on Veneen Pas, "Weeping Farm", the Voortrekker farmer's daughter, Julie (Hilda Cronje), and her father's servant, John (Bongile Mantsai), are bound together, by forces they can neither avoid nor control. He is on a chain, kept from the world outside by ancestral ties and indentured servitude; she is in a cage, trapped by her bitter inheritance and new fears.
In the kitchen where John's mother Christine (the imposing Thoko Ntshinga) labours, Julie and John's ambitions and demons, blood and flesh, are fated to mingle.
Strindberg's Scandinavian discretion made his characters' repression and transgressions even more shocking. Here, in the 21st century, everything is laid bare.
Much that Strindberg threw a veil over is exposed. What is implied in Miss Julie is explicit here; Farber's characters copulate, and bleed, and die, in plain view, not off stage like Strindberg's originals.
Here, life and death are everywhere, and unstoppable. The tree under which John's ancestors are buried breaks through the red tiles of the farmer's kitchen floor; the farm bitch's unwanted puppies and Julie's cosseted pet bird are slaughtered with bare hands. The blood of animals and humans, water and spit and sex fill Christina's buckets, and spill across the floor.
Farber's imagery, at its best, is memorable. Christina has scrubbed those floors so hard for so long she's lost her fingerprints and, hence, in a South Africa where identification is identity, her humanity; a storm brews and brews, but the rain, when it comes, quickly evaporates in the hot, dry ground.
But Farber's dramatic craft doesn't quite match the power and vision of those images.
The action becomes repetitive and narrow; Julie straddles John, he holds her face against his, again and again. They claim each other over and over. Points are made and remade until we get less and less information, less and less emotion. When we witness the terrible things that happen eventually and inevitably, we have insufficient experience of the couple that perpetrates them to fully absorb the disaster.
Mies Julie is breathtaking (as are both Cronje and Mantsai's performances), but, finally, it falls short of the truly great theatre it has the potential to be.