Twenty years after apartheid was officially abolished, its effects still simmer under modern South African society – and one night it all boils over in a Cape Karoo kitchen in the explosive play Mies Julie.
Adapted from the August Strindberg classic Miss Julie, the play follows Julie, the white daughter of a South African landowner, as she kindles a relationship with John (Bongile Mantsai), a black servant. What results not only crosses the boundaries of race and class, but also of geography and family as the two wrestle over an upbringing shared by John's mother, Christine (Thokozile Ntshinga), and the territory claimed by their ancestors.
"A key issue is how far back we go to claim the land. How far back do we go to say that we belong there? Julie has ancestors. John has ancestors. We are both children of South Africa," says actress Hilda Cronje, who grew up in South Africa, and plays the physically and emotionally taxing role of Julie. "So it's looking at that complex dilemma, because that's what it is when you unearth it to the core."
To say the least, the play has been a massive success. The New York Times and The Guardian both named it among the top 10 productions of 2012; it won a coveted Scotsman Fringe First award at the Edinburgh Fringe; it has toured the globe; and it brought writer and director Yael Farber a national best director award in her native South Africa.
But the play's subject matter isn't limited to the travails of the African nation, where audiences have been known to sit in shocked silence after the challenging, and at times violent and sexually charged play. According to Ms. Cronje, the issues that underlie it are the same around the world.
"Whatever has happened in our lives – love lost, love found, lies, disillusionment – we all come out of it deeply scarred or we are transformed and transcend it," she says. "And I think at the end of the night you ask yourself, 'Where have you arrived? How are you going to go forward from here? And how are you going to love differently or love more?'"
Mies Julie is at the Cultch until April 19 (thecultch.com).