Love does not conquer all in Mies Julie on stage at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre
Not every love story is a love story. At the heart of Mies Julie — a masterful and punishing play by Yael Farber, currently on stage at the Harbourfront Centre — are two people who genuinely love each other, as confusingly and urgently as people ever do. And as usual, it’s a problem.
Typically in love stories, when love is the problem, it’s also the solution. Even if the star-crossed lovers feel the need to tragically kill themselves, at least dying restores them to the unity of their love. But love is not the solution in Mies Julie, and this is not a love story.
Not that love is irrelevant; it just isn’t going to save anybody. The play’s namesake, Julie (played by Hilda Cronje), is the daughter of a Boer landowner in contemporary South Africa, desperate to release her sexual and romantic tension with John (Bongile Mantsai), her father’s servant, who is more cautious but just as eager. But when they finally grasp each other, they are truly lost.
This version of Mies Julie reincarnates August Strindberg’s classic of the same name. Like the original, Farber’s rewrite explores the distortions of class and power, but by updating the story to a South African setting, she reaches a new peak of psychological pain and social entrapment, transmitted through the history of apartheid.
Cronje and Mantsai perform with stunning energy and eroticism. Except at rare moments, they seem never to stop moving, constantly convulsed by the impossibility of their desire. Cronje is by turns beguiling and distraught, but at all times ferocious. Mantsai leaps and stomps athletically around the stage, vibrating between rage and grief. It’s not overdone, just very intense.
Farber shows a real genius for symbolism. The play takes place in a rudimentary kitchen with a bright red floor, like a hot plate, so that it feels like John and Julie are being cooked alive (and the audience with them). Steam from a fog machine pumps the room full of mist from well before we even arrive in the theatre, and the muggy atmosphere seems to thicken as John and Julie’s situation becomes more desperate.
John spends most of his time compulsively shining the master’s boots, a perfect image for his fraught relationship to power. More boots line one wall, erect like soldiers. They preside over the lovers’ stolen intimacy, as rigid as the certainty of the couple’s doom.
The world John and Julie occupy is frozen by trauma, but Julie is ready to smash their brittle equilibrium. Yet the profound consequences loom over both characters, and they aren’t able to sort out how far they’re willing to go. John, finding himself with power, thrills to it; Julie, in losing hers, begins to doubt.
There are moments of violence in this play — one in particular — that made my throat catch and my eyes squeeze shut. Be warned: Farber doesn’t look away.
The presence of love is a lurker in this beautiful and wrenching drama. It nearly disappears beneath the anguish and stark terror that otherwise engulfs the characters, but it’s there. This isn’t a love story, but there’d be no story at all without love. Pain is real, but so is hope. It’s not one or the other. No one wins.
- Mies Julie is playing until May 10 at Enwave Theatre in the Harbourfront Centre (231 Queens Quay W).
- Tickets are available for $29, $39, or $49 through the box office.
(Image: Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai. Credit: Mark Wessels)