Watching Mies Julie at Arts Emerson, I was surprised by how, well, surprised I was. The story strayed so far from the original that, by the end, I had nearly convinced myself that the play would end on a positive note. Well played, cast and company, well played.
The most striking element of the production was the way it used sexuality and violence onstage. The production was incredibly physical, with performers dancing across the stage and leaping through the air, imbuing their performance with acrobatic energy that was amazing to behold. The energy was at times beautiful, with Julie spinning across the stage with her skirt flaring around her, but would abruptly turn ugly. The ugliness – violence, hurt, and anger – were often intimately interwoven. At one point the actors’ lips got breathtakingly close, but the moment was shattered by a wind-up slap to John’s face and a return to bitter, angry language.
The violence was a striking element of the production. moments of sexuality – and there are a lot, so if you don’t want to see any nudity, this might not be the show for you – would often stem from aggression or end in it. There is even, at one point, and incredibly uncomfortable scene between the two where the sex is the violence, culminating in a scene where John very nearly rapes Julie. Taken altogether, this show was certainly disturbing. Without ruining the climactic, and appropriately shocking, ending, let me just say that it’s not often I walk out of a theatre with a knot in my stomach, but this show left me with just that. I stared, open-mouthed, in disbelief, and there was value to that.
I had at first thought that the focus on violence, and the way it had become so central to the play, was a choice on the part of the director. I soon found that I was mistaken, and that violence was central not just to the play, but the production as a whole. Julie looks at John at one point and says, in essence “when people get violent, you know you’ve told the truth,” and that quote stuck with me. If violence almost always comes after the truth, what makes the truth so volatile to both John and Julie? In addition, why is it so connected to sex?
What was it for? Was it something of a love-hate relationship with each other? It seems fair enough, but I’d suggest it’s more of a love between the two of them that is halted by a system that they both hate, but can’t change. John and Julie, who have grown up together, seem genuinely in love, unlike in Strindberg’s play in which it is almost entirely manipulative on Jean’s part. However, for these two, a system of racial conflict, Apartheid, keeps both of them from being able to love. As a result, they are left to hate one another for their race, not because they think the other is inferior by virtue of their race, but because race is the thing standing between them and their chance at happiness.
The violence comes to a head at the play’s shocking conclusion, which left my mouth agape and my head slowly shaking side to side. In an ultimate act of violence, Julie ends up laying on the floor, dead, but her death is simply one more in a long line of women who, according to Julie, were too tender for the harshness of life in South Africa. Julie is anything but tender, and her ferocity is only matched by John’s, but she is no match for the oppressive racial discrimination that prevents her from being able to love John fully, shamelessly. In that way Apartheid leaves no one free, as a system that leaves any one person oppressed in turn denies true freedom to the entire population. Julie is just as much a South Africa native as John is – it’s where she grew up and it’s the only home she has ever known. She is also just as much a prisoner, and by the play’s end, just as much a victim.