Two plays this week, both challenging and remarkably well done.
“Mies Julie”, playing at the Shakespeare Theatre’s Lansburgh Theatre is a South African adaptation of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie”, written by Yael Farber. It premiered in South Africa, and has played at the Edinburgh Festival and in New York before opening its ten day run here.
There are two main, and two more peripheral characters. Julie is the daughter of a Boer farmer and estate owner in the Karoo area of South Africa, immature and coming out of a broken engagement, bitter and (for her thinking) without a promising future. John is only a few years older than Julie, the son of the estate’s kitchen maid, who has known Mies Julie since birth.
The action is all about the sexual tension that exists between the two, leading to a violent physical encounter which apparently marks the end of Julie’s virginity. Sexual relations between two people of such different social standings are not to be undertaken lightly, and once they have occurred, neither Julie nor John know what to do next. Do they love each other? Do they hate each other? Should they run away together, and if so, how will they survive?
But there’s a different under current here. There is a different type of tension that, as far as we know, has stayed hidden until now. The bitter resentment of the servant class towards the landlord class, of the South African blacks toward the South African whites.
As far as Julie is concerned, the estate belongs to her family. Three generations of her ancestors are buried under its ground, and she is the heir of her disfunctional family (her mother had committed suicide years earlier, and her father is apparently a brute; neither displayed much concern for their daughter). But John’s family had been on this land even longer than Julie’s, and his ancestors are also buried under the ground, in fact directly under where the kitchen (where the entire play takes place) has been built.
Who owns this land? Who has rights to it? Who has rights to South Africa?
You probably need to be South African to understand this dynamic completely in its African context. But this was originally a Swedish play (very few of Strindberg’s lines were kept apparently), and you can easily think to transpose it to, say, Israel or other parts of the Middle East, or Kashmir, or so many other places where the rights of various classes of people are in question and contention.
It is clear that the South African dilemma must be answered. It is equally clear that there is no answer.
Two nights later, we went to Theater J to watch “The Argument” by Alexandra Gersten-Vassilaros. A very different play, but a very similar one. Here the setting is New York City, and the coming together of a man and woman in their 40s, each a victim of an unsuccessful marriage, believing that at last they have found true happiness and a healthy future with each other. Until she gets pregnant, and makes it clear that she does not want to have a child, that it will interrupt her career, take over her life, and (who knows?) considering her age, may be handicapped. And he makes it equally clear that he wants to have this baby, to be a father.
Sparks fly (OK, more than sparks), and their relationship more or less goes the way of that of John and Julie. We have another problem that must be resolved. And again, it is clear (in this case, even more clear) that there is no resolution. In the case of South Africa, compromise or temporizing is possible. In the case of a pregnancy, neither is possible, one side must prevail.
Both of these are strong plays (and were performed even more strongly). Both are disturbing, and thought provoking. And both capitalize on the same gimmick – take a problem that is capable of being magnified until it is beyond controlling, and which takes over the lives of those facing the problem, and make each side continually more rigid and unwilling to compromise or give in. Often, I guess, this is how life is. Luckily, even more often, it is not.