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DIRECTOR: Yael Farber
CAST: Thoko Ntshinga, Bongile Mantsai, Hilda Cronje, Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa
VENUE: The Flipside, Baxter Theatre
UNTIL: July 26
Yael Farber’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s play about class and the battle of the sexes finds fertile ground in a modern South African kitchen.
She turns the power struggle into an interrogation of ownership, of land and people, in the form of Christine (Ntshinga).
Here Christine is John’s (Mantsai) mother and Julie’s (Cronje) primary caregiver since her own mother died.
Like so many white South Africans, Julie has been raised by the servant and sees Christine has her own, creating a convoluted relationship with John who is a rival for Christine’s affection, a potential playmate and now, as an adult out of sorts with herself on this fateful evening, the object of her passion.
The action takes place on one evening in the red-tiled kitchen where a drunk Julie attempts to seduce John, but gets more than she bargained for.
It starts with Julie wandering in and out of the kitchen as the other two are finishing their chores. In the same way, the play is most potent when it is Mantsai and Ntshinga interacting, with Cronje delivering her lines in a fairly desultory manner.
While the original play has the servant John as the one calling the shots, the one who wants to start a hotel and use the master’s daughter, Julie, to further his ends, Farber turns the tables and makes Julie the one with all the trappings of power.
Yet, Julie seems to be a rather insubstantial kind of character, not least of all because Cronje just seems to be going through the motions.
Farber takes the action way beyond the kiss exchanged by John Kani and Sandra Prinsloo back in 1984 – with a disturbing sexual exchange that earns the play an 18 age restriction.
The play is subtitled Restitutions of Body and Soil Since the Bantu Land Act No 27 and The Immorality Act No 5 of 1927 and while Julie may be flippant when she suggests any child they would have together would surely inherit both the land and their collective soul, he is quite serious.
Christine is literally haunted by her ancestors, as Lungisa – a somewhat creepy presence only the old woman can see – wanders on and off the stage. Lungisa serves as a reminder that there is much of the black cultural experience that white people do not have the vocabulary to understand.
Two musicians on the side of the stage provide a continual discordant drone, fuelling the feeling that all is not well.
A scene towards the end of the production has Christine, dressed in her blue and white church uniform, telling John that she is prepared to wait till the end of time because God will surely provide, while John decries the iniquity of the white man coming to Africa and giving the black man the Bible as a panacea to cure all ills.
“I need you, John,” Julie says leadenly.
“I don’t need you, Julie,” he replies evenly and therein lies just one of the issues very few South African playwrights even try to explore.
Farber dares to go there though, questioning the black man’s right to ownership of land, when he’s done exactly what the white man did, expropriated it from the people who went before… albeit hundreds of years before.
While you get the angst of Christine who keenly feels the need to stay where her ancestors are buried and John’s frustration in not owning anything, or being able to leave a permanent mark on the world, you never understand what Julie is so upset about.
Julie merely comes across as whiney because she can’t get her way, just delivering lines, so you never really believe her and this drags at the play’s pace, wasting all the interesting ideas Farber has started delving into with her interpretation.