BWW Reviews: THE BLUE IRIS Disappoints and MIES JULIE Thrills on Cape Town stages, July 2012
A decade ago, I attended a lecture that addressed the need for South African theatremakers to tell their own stories. The idea of mounting plays by international playwrights was dismissed completely and adapting classic plays in our own idiom was viewed with disdain. The juxtaposition of THE BLUE IRIS at the Fugard Theatre and MIES JULIE at the Baxter Theatre, two productions that premiered at the National Arts Festival and which have transferred to Cape Town for commercial runs, offers a new opportunity to explore that debate, which is by no means a new one in the context of South African theatre.
THE BLUE IRIS is a new play by Athol Fugard: a South African story told by a South African playwright. The narrative focuses on Robert (Graham Weir) and Rieta (Lee-Ann van Rooi), a master and servant, who are clearing up the debris left by a fire that destroyed Robert’s Karoo farmhouse. The spirit of Robert’s wife, Sally (Claire Berlein), haunts what remains of the homestead and what follows is a dismantling their lives, as the characters expose long-held secrets in the hope of excising the ghosts of the past.
The play is a reconfiguration of ideas that are prominent elsewhere in Fugard’s work: an overt existentialist sensibility (PEOPLE ARE LIVING THERE); the use of a plant as a central symbol (A LESSON FROM ALOES); and the household setup of a local man with an English wife and a female servant (SORROWINGS AND REJOICINGS).
THE BLUE IRIS starts off in a typically absurdist fashion, with a great deal of dialogue and very little action. Robert and Rieta are waiting for something to arrive that makes meaning of their lives, a contemporary Vladimir and Estragon in a South African landscape. The play subsequently shifts into a lyrically realist mode and it is in that shift that the play begins to flounder.
As the pair seeks out and encounters Sally’s ghost, Fugard forces the characters to make meaning. The symbolism of the titular flower, beautiful but poisonous, comes into play. Secrets are revealed and grand revelations are made. The problem is that the foundation upon which the latter half of the play is built is not deep enough. Because the entire play involves a retelling of the characters’ history without unpacking the consequences thereof, the conclusion is sentimental and unsatisfying.
Although the play is disappointing, the performances are arresting. Weir breathes into Robert a life that makes the text resonate far beyond its shortcomings. Van Rooi is an excellent foil for him and she develops Rieta beautifully over the course of the play. Berlein is rawly emotional in her single scene, although she appears too concrete for an otherworldly being.
THE BLUE IRIS might have been a better play had Fugard made clearer decisions about its style and intent. Had he followed through on the existentialist thrust of the piece, a fine political allegory about the state of reconciliation in post-apartheid South Africa might have emerged. I suspect, however, that it is the personal rather than the political that interests Fugard here and, to this end, the play should have pushed its way through its lyrical realist trappings into a stark and startling work of magic realism.
MIES JULIE is a new play adapted by Yael Farber from August Strindberg’s MISS JULIE: a Swedish story made South African. The play deals with the aftermath of the ideological dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, commenting on the process of political and personal reconciliation, using the issue of land claims as a focal point. This is distilled into the story of Julie (Hilda Cronje), the daughter of an unseen landowner, and that of two servants who have ancestral claims to the land, Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) and John (Bongile Mantsai).
The adaptation of Strindberg’s original text is not a cursory one. Farber has taken the source material and reworked it extensively to suit a South African milieu. For the most part, it works: there are a few moments when language sits uncomfortably on the tongues of the characters. Sometimes, this is a matter of vocabulary (as when Christine says that she will ‘press’ John’s suit for church rather than ‘iron’ it), but it is more disruptive when Farber puts thesis statements about the ‘restitution of body and soil’ into the mouths of the characters. It is not unimaginable that the characters might express something of the kind, but the lines sounds like a playwright’s ideas rather than a character’s speech.
It is in translating the text into performance where Farber scores most strongly with MIES JULIE and her collaboration with Patrick Curtis (set design), Paul Abrams (lighting) and Birrie le Roux (costumes) as well as Daniel Pencer and Matthew Pencer (who create the soundscape for the performance) plays no small part in the success of her staging. The physical staging of the piece draws the audience in slowly and carefully, laying the groundwork for a riveting climax.
The performances are compelling. Best of all is Ntshinga as Christine, by turns powerful and vulnerable and completely moving throughout. Cronje works herself into Julie: there is a point midway through the performance where she suddenly comes into her own, where Julie springs to life in a way that compensates for Cronje’s tentative earlier moments in the role. Mantsai communicates the swings in John’s character perfectly, brooding and reactionary at first and ultimately articulate and revolutionary. Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa remains onstage throughout as an ancestor, singer and musician. Her presence is haunting.
MIES JULIE is a play that makes ideas that are lurking in the news physical, ideas that are easy to dismiss because they are news and that are easy to ignore in a nation that prizes the idea of reconciliation above its cost. The play seeks out to expose fearlessly what lies beneath that façade and it achieves this, raising as many questions as it sets out to answer.
It is clear to me that the debate around how we tell our stories is one that has little universality. Although in this case, the homegrown story lags behind the story that is remade, two other plays could certainly tell another story: think of, say, The Pink Couch’s brilliant original play ...MISKIEN in comparison with Sean Mathias and Myer Taub’s tepid adaptation of ANTIGONE. What struck me most about THE BLUE IRIS and MIES JULIE is how removed the former seemed from the reality of contemporary South Africa with its view that testimony is enough to foster reconciliation and just how deeply the latter explores the price that come with accepting that falsehood. In this case, it matters not which has the greater claim to being an original piece of South African storytelling; what matters is which tells the greater truth about South Africa and which realises that truth best theatrically.