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BWW Reviews: THE BLUE IRIS Disappoints and MIES JULIE Thrills on Cape Town Stages

Lee-Ann van Rooi, Graham Weir
and Claire Berlein in THE BLUE IRIS
Photo credit: Jesse Kramer Photography

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 exorcising 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 attempts a shift into the mode of lyrical realism, and it is in that shift that the play begins to flounder.

Lee-Ann van Rooi, Claire Berlein
and Graham Weir in THE BLUE IRIS
Photo credit: CuePix / Harold Gess

As the pair seeks out and encounters Sally's ghost, Fugard forces the characters to make meaning. Secrets are revealed, and grand revelations are made. The symbolism of the titular flower, beautiful but poisonous, comes into play. But while Fugard deconstructs the characters' history so as to shed new light on their relationships, he fails to unpack the consequences of the reconfiguration of their shared past. Ultimately, the play offers a sentimental and shallow look at post-apartheid reconciliation, its conclusion unsatisfying.

Although the play is disappointing, its two central performances, under the direction of Janice Honeyman, 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, developing Rieta beautifully over the course of the play. In her single scene, Berlein is rawly emotional, but her overly concrete depiction of an otherworldly being feels out of place in this production and favours melodrama over truth.

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.

Thoko Ntshinga, Bongile Mantsai, Hilda Cronje
and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa in MIES JULIE
Photo credit: Murdo Macleod

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. The reimagining works and only a few isolated moments jar, when language sits uncomfortably on the tongues of the characters. Sometimes, this is easily dismissed, a matter of diction, for example when Christine says that she will 'press' John's suit for church rather than 'iron' it. However, It is more disruptive when Farber places 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 way the dialogue is written here sounds more 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. 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.

Hilda Chronje and Bongile Mantsai in MIES JULIE
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov

The performances are compelling. Best of all is Ntshinga as Christine, by turns powerful and vulnerable and completely moving throughout the play. Cronje works herself into Julie, at first tentative and then suddenly coming into her own, springing to life in an uncompromising performance. 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 easy to ignore for a nation that prizes the idea of reconciliation above its cost. The play seeks out fearlessly to expose what lies beneath that façade. There is no doubt that MIES JULIE achieves its objective, leaving audiences with the kinds of questions that will hopefully ignite something in our collective consciousness.

It is clear to me that the debate around how we tell our stories is one that has little universality. In this case, the homegrown story lags behind the story that has been remade, but a comparison of 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. In this case, it matters not that THE BLUE IRIS arguably has the greater claim to being an original piece of South African storytelling; what matters is that MIES JULIE reveals a remarkable truth about South Africa through Farber's adaptation. The view in the former that testimony is enough to foster reconciliation is disingenuous alongside the latter's deep exploration of the price that comes with accepting that falsehood.

Tickets for THE BLUE IRIS (running until 4th August 2012) and MIES JULIE (running until 26 July 2012) are available through Computicket.

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