Last night I went to see Yael Farber’s Mies Julie, a re-location of Strindberg’s play to contemporary South Africa. I found things to admire in the production: there was some beautiful lighting, intricate sound design, and two very passionate performances by the lead actors Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje.
But for reasons that had very little to do with the production itself, I found it difficult to get into the play.
One explanation is that there were a couple of distracting mishaps early in the performance. About ten minutes in, Cronje, the actor playing Miss Julie, knocked a bottle of wine over, spilling it on a table that was clearly intended to be used for much of the rest of the performance (we’ve all seen plays like this, where a table becomes a kind of stage within the stage – I often see this in productions of Playboy of the Western World, for instance).
I knew that Julie was going to be sitting and lying on the table very soon – and that there was no way she was going to be able to do so without having to remark upon the big pool of wine that would be staining her dress, etc. So they needed to find a way to clean up the mess, quickly.
Normally you’d expect a performer to improvise a way out of this kind of problem, but the power dynamics in the play made that very difficult. As in the Strindberg original Julie occupies a much more powerful position in the social hierarchy than John (her father’s servant) does. But because she needs something from him – emotional support, attention, physical comfort – he also has power over her. The play thus becomes an extended game for control between them. If he uses his physical strength against her, she will wound herself in return – thus attacking his own sense of being a protector of women, and thus attacking his masculinity. If she uses racist epithets against him, he withdraws his attention from her, showing her powerlessness – and the powerlessness of her words. Her tenderness is matched with his violence, her bitterness with his vulnerability. Both in script and movement, these exchanges are intricately choreographed.
In this kind of arrangement, the question of who is going to clean up the spilled wine is far from neutral. Julie would never clean up her own mess – but John will be very reluctant to reinforce her sense that she is the master and he the servant.
In the end, the actor playing John (Bongile Mantsai) cleaned up the mess.
A few minutes later, a worse problem arose. The table was now clean, and John had passionately thrown Julie onto it. In doing so, he knocked one of two wine glasses over; it rolled off the table and hit the floor. Normally in the theatre, you’d expect to hear a dull thud, followed by a bounce – everyone uses plastic glasses on stage, don’t they? But here the glass smashed loudly, sending large shards all around the radius of the table.
Neither actor said anything.
Immediately my attention turned to the fact that the performer playing Julie was in her bare feet. Her movements were stylised, often dance-like; she’d already jumped from and onto the table several times – and had also been pushed and thrown around by John, so often was sent to parts of the stage without knowing exactly where she was going. At that moment, I wondered if she was aware that there was a huge chunk of glass just below the place where her foot was swinging from the table.
Again the problems of power impeded the solution of this problem – neither character could credibly clean up the mess, so neither actor seemed able to find a way to improvise a response to it.
The glass remained on the floor for the next 15 minutes or so. At one point, the two leads each grabbed particularly big shards and carried them towards a bin. At another, the actor playing John’s mother managed to sweep up some of the glass. But for most of the rest of the performance, the actors were trying to discreetly to kick glass out of the way, under the table, or off the performance area.
They key problem when something goes wrong on stage is this – the audience has to believe that the character has solved the problem, and not that the actor has solved the problem. And here this play is so tightly and intricately managed, that there was no space for the characters to fix things. So the illusion kept breaking down, at least for me.
I can’t say with certainty that the shards were made of glass, and of course have to make clear that I am only reporting how things seemed to me from Row F in the theatre.
But I found myself suffering throughout the performance from a bad dose of Eldest Child Syndrome. This is something that a lot of my fellow academics are plagued by: an ability to see a problem, coupled with a fear that if you don’t solve it, no-one else will. So every time Julie ran, jumped or walked towards a particularly big chunk of glass, I found myself imagining her being cut, the show being called to a halt, and the actress sent off for stitches and shots to Casualty. Instead of thinking about the play, I was wondering why a stage manager didn’t interrupt the performance, or why the actors didn’t just improvise a line that involved going backstage to get a dust-pan and brush.
In the end, of course, nothing at all happened. Cronje was fine. So all my attention to this issue was proven misplaced and inappropriate.
Such is the sad fate of people with Eldest Child Syndrome.
I was also distracted by a domestic drama being played out in the row in front of me. As the lights went down at the start, I noticed the guy in front of me was busily texting on his phone. His wife or girlfriend (they were a young couple – late 20s, early 30s) glared at him to put the phone away, but he kept texting for the first five minutes of the performance, much of which was played out in the aisles of the auditorium, as the actors walked from the back of the theatre on to the stage.
Periodically the man’s phone would give three bright flashes which illuminated a surprisingly large space in the auditorium: this was another text message coming in. His partner asked him to stop a few times. He snuggled up to her shoulder after one request, smiling at her – she rolled her eyes, and he returned to his phone.
He clearly didn’t have much interest in the play, or in his companion’s request that he stop distracting her and everyone else around him.
Amusingly, though, once the play was over the guy was one of the first people on his feet to give it a standing ovation.
This kind of bad behaviour can happen in theatres everywhere, on any day of the week. But I’m always a little surprised when I see it happening on a Saturday night. While of course the vast majority of audience members are engaged and respectful of each other, it’s ironic that the night for which tickets are most expensive seems to attract a small number of customers who place very little value on what they are seeing.
I don’t want that comment to seem sanctimonious, but I did find quite funny the contrast between the male/female relationship being played out on stage and the male/female dynamic in the row in front of us.
So I found it quite difficult to give myself up fully to MIes Julie. I hope this doesn’t seem in any way disrespectful to the performers or play: to use the cliché, it’s not them, it’s me.
But the events of last night remind me again of how one’s experience of theatre is so frequently conditioned and influenced by the most arbitrary things: where you’re sitting, when you go, what you had to eat beforehand, how tired or energetic you’re feeling, who is sitting near you, and so on.
And of course accidents happen in the theatre and on the stage all the time: I’ve been at shows where people have collapsed or been taken ill, and I remember once being at the Abbey (before it was renovated) and watching a bulb fall from its ceiling and crashing maybe 60 feet to the floor below, just missing one of the people seated on the aisle. The show (Hugh Leonard’s A Life, if I remember correctly) went on regardless.
I think this experience shows one of the major methodological problems with reviewing plays (not that I was reviewing the play last night – I was there entirely for personal enjoyment). My experience of Mies Julie last night was overwhelmingly influenced by factors that were unique to me, and unique to that particular time and place. But isn’t that true for everyone who sees a play, whenever they see it? And aren’t there always little mishaps, most of which are less visible than the ones I saw last night – missed lines, misplaced props, phones going off in the auditorium, and so on?
In other words, last night reinforced to me that it’s impossible to go to the theatre and have anything other than a subjective reaction to what you see. Of course professional critics are obliged to strive towards objectivity, but they have to strive towards it because it’s not something they’ll ever achieve.
As for Mies Julie, it got a standing ovation last night, and has been widely praised by (almost) everyone who saw it. Clearly my reactions to it mean that I missed out on something special.
That said, so did the man with the mobile phone.