There’s plenty in “Mies Julie” to get audiences talking. But for writer-director Yaël Farber, who has seen her production travel the world since its South African premiere last year, the surprising thing is how the topic of that conversation can change from country to country.
Same play, different audience, different response.
“I’m always amazed at how theater is less about what is on the stage and more about what it raises inside. It really holds up the mirror to the society that is watching. It raises the issues that are at the forefront for those societies,” Farber says, on the phone from Montreal, where the native of South Africa now lives.
Her free adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play, “Miss Julie,” takes the original’s focus on class and aristocratic tradition in 19th-century Sweden and places it amid the racial politics of contemporary South Africa. ArtsEmerson is presenting “Mies Julie” at the Paramount Center Mainstage for a brief run that begins Saturday.
Farber’s version, set in the rural area known as the Eastern Cape, explores a sexually charged encounter between a black farm laborer named John and the title character, the daughter of the Afrikaans landowner who is his employer.
Julie’s family has lived there for three generations, but John’s people owned the land before the policies of apartheid stripped away their property rights. Her deceased family members are buried out in the yard; the bones of his ancestors lie under the floorboards of the kitchen, where the play is set. Over the course of one evening — which falls on Freedom Day, the national holiday commemorating the 1994 election of Nelson Mandela to lead the post-apartheid government — the two engage in a tense, erotic, perhaps deadly exchange of power amid the ghosts of history.
Farber aimed to put the focus on property ownership in contemporary South Africa, and the lingering issues that still need to be untangled under the long shadow of apartheid. But when the play is performed in the United States — as it was in New York last year — American audiences tend to pick up on the interracial relationship first, she says. That, and the sex.
When the production played at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in 2012, Farber figured she’d use a version of the same, sexually suggestive poster from a preceding run in London. But she found the image made American theater producers more nervous than their British counterparts.
“Each time we have shown the work in America, there has been a preoccupation with the sexuality of the piece,” Farber says. “The adjective that came up often in the UK was ‘erotic,’ but at times in America someone would write about it as ‘pornographic.’ There has been a shock factor to the whole narrative device of how sexuality unleashes the power pendulum between these two people.”
Farber also says a crucial sexual encounter in the story, which she sees as “very, very passionate” but consensual, has been termed rape in stateside accounts of the play.
The production was born at Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre Centre, in association with the South Africa State Theatre. It went from there to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, where it netted awards and was a surprise sensation before moving to London and New York. Now back in the United States, it played at Washington, D.C.’s Shakespeare Theatre Company just before the Boston engagement.
“It is amazing that every single place where you go, it hits people in different ways,” says Bongile Mantsai, who plays John to Hilda Cronje’s Julie.
Mantsai says his post-show talks with audience members often turn to matters of race. “What I’ve noticed in the United States is that there are problems within the different cities,” Mantsai says, “but people are not talking about them. They will tell you it is there but it’s under the surface, it’s under the carpet, no one talks more about it.” A panel discussion following the matinee performance on Dec. 7 will look at how the themes of the play may resonate in Boston.
A 1985 production of Strindberg’s “Miss Julie” at the Baxter employed interracial casting, triggering a notoriously divisive response from audiences. But Farber says audiences in her homeland are focused on different issues now. “In contemporary South Africa, the issue that is at the fore, the urgent issue, is the land,” she asserts.
This isn’t the first time Farber has interpreted existing source material to get at what she sees as the key issues of her times. Her “Kadmos” uses the work of Sophocles and journalist Mark Danner as a springboard to address torture and contemporary abuses of power. In “Molora,” Farber fused material from Aeschylus and transcripts from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of post-apartheid South Africa.
Strindberg’s work, too, has been subject to contemporary staging; previous productions of “Miss Julie” have set the action in 1940s England as well as Haiti. Though the notion of romance between a lady of the aristocracy and her family’s servant is no longer as shocking on its face as it once was, theater directors have continued to mine the story for contemporary relevance.
Farber says there’s no formula behind her taste for juxtaposition.
“I don’t go to the libraries and scour the shelves for works that resonate. It’s very much what just crosses my path and ignites me,” she muses. “If we’re using ‘Antigone’ or ‘Miss Julie,’ the question is: Why do I need to be at the theater tonight? How will I walk away more deeply engaged and compelled and accountable to my contemporary world?”
Reviews of “Mies Julie” describe it as an intense affair filled with physical, viscerally realized performances — not to mention nudity. (The play is recommended for ages 16 and older.) Mantsai remembers it being an emotionally exhausting experience all the way back to his first audition.
Though he commits himself each night to finding the “truth” of the story onstage, he says, there is a limit. “It’s a thin line. If you do not separate yourself from your character, you will find yourself in big trouble. I think I come across a point where I know who is Bongile and I know who is John.”
As for Farber, she maintains that underneath the layers of concept frequently present in her work, her aims are direct and plain. “I don’t think we go to theater to have our beliefs reconfirmed. I think we go to theater to be shaken to the core.”