Mies Julie – Assembly Hall – 5 stars
Woza Albert! - Assembly Hall – 4 stars
The People Show 121 – The Detective Show – Assembly George Square – 4 stars
Assembly Theatre's South African season is an intoxicating mix of old and new theatre from the frontline of the country's creative ferment. Baxter Theatre and South African State Theatre have joined forces to present Mies Julie, which places Strindberg's psycho-sexual pot-boiler in their post apartheid homeland. The result in Canadian playwright Yael Farber's own production of her version, set in a farm in the remote Eastern Cape Karoo, is a devastating reinvention that throws racial taboos into the mix of cross-class shenanigans and self-destructive power games between genders that already fester.
Here Julie is a white young woman, a troubled wild child who's just been dumped by her fiance and is drunk after gate-crashing the black servants' party. The object of her affections, John, is a black servant who cleans her father's boots before the simmering sexual tension that has grown between Julie and him spills over, as the electronic pulse which has throbbed throughout the play rises and falls with increasing intensity. All the while John's mother does her chores as ancient ghosts manifest themselves anew.
Put simply, Farber has concocted an electric piece of theatre, the sensual heat of which more resembling something by Tennessee Williams than Strindberg. Hila Cronje's Julie is an emotional mess even before she eggs Bongile Mantsai's John into brutal, animalistic sex which provides both a form of rebellion and a father figure. When the pair come together, it's as if the shackles of centuries of repression have been smashed. Yet, even when John stands defiant with rifle and blood-dripping sickle after Julie takes self-harm to symbolic extremes,, it's still John's mother that washes away the mess. Until August 27th
Also in the South African Season is the Market Theatre of Johannesburg's revival of Woza Albert!, Percy Mtwa, Mbongeni Ngema and Barney Simon's devised apartheid era satire that brought black South African theatre to the world in the early 1980s. More than thirty years on, the trio's yarn about what happens when a reborn Christ turns up in the townships remains a vibrant document of its time that channels a panoply of South African street-life onto the stage in a raw and urgent fashion.
Now, as with the original production, two actors play a roll-call of prisoners, shop-keepers and presidents. Mincedisi Baldwin Shabangu and Peter Mashigo switch between these with little more than a couple of pairs of glasses and the odd robe pulled from a hung floor-board that acts as a coat-rail. Prince Ramla's production sticks too to the poor theatre techniques of old, which both men seize with physical abandon. While things are far from perfect in the new South Africa, Woza Albert! Is a timely reminder of how art and politics can combine in a fearless and joyful romp that's a turbo-charged delight. Until August 27th .
The People Show were similarly pioneering when the company now regarded as the UK's first ever experimental theatre troupe first appeared way back in 1966. The People Show 121 – The Detective Show continues the company's particularly English strain of surrealism in a self-referential investigation that throws Agatha Christie, Hedy Lamarr, Bob Dylan and Adolf Hitler's sperm into a big daft post-modern whodunnit designed for ageing hippies everywhere.
Gareth Brierley, Fiona Creese and Mark Long play-act a series of Life on Mars style coppers circa 1976, a somewhat effete Christie expert and a feckless wannabe actor called Gareth, played by his real-life namesake. There's true-love and antagonism in equal measure in a riot of free-associative pop cultural silliness on show here. This set the template for Edinburgh, and, just as The People Show got their first, they'll probably be the last men and women standing.
The real mystery of The Detective Show, of course, is what became of the mysterious Sadie Cook, the seemingly absent cast member advertised on the show's flyer, and where are the bodies buried? Of course, this may be a theatrical red herring. Either way, it's a clue worth solving. Until August 27th.
The Herald, August 10th 2012