YAËL FARBER REMEMBERS hearing the talk about a controversial production of August Strindberg's Miss Julie when she was a teenager in South Africa during the 1980s. The 43-year-old playwright and theatre director also recalls reading the play in drama school in her early 20s, noting the "very little impression" that this 1888 tragedy about class division and sexual politics made on her back then.
It wasn't until Farber watched one of her students attempt to stage several scenes from the play that everything began to click. "The power of the work was awoken in me, and I noticed its untapped potential," says Farber of her enlightening experience at the National Theatre School of Canada. "The hunger to create something radically new from the material to speak of South Africa was born."
Almost as universal as Romeo and Juliet, despite a heavier dose of scorn and viciousness, Strindberg's classic Swedish tale of forbidden romance has been transposed to a number of historical settings over the years.
Farber is aware of its history and cites Patrick Marber's After Miss Julie (1995) - set in an English country house in 1945, during the Labour Party's landslide victory over Winston Churchill - as a favourite, but she was eager "to create a complete rewrite".
"I wanted to make the shifts that the new context needed to articulate South Africa's unique dilemmas," says Farber of her Mies Julie, which has been touring - and proving a hit - since its 2012 premiere at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown, South Africa.
A production of the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town, in association with the South Africa State Theatre, Farber's critically acclaimed play is set to arrive in Hong Kong this week for 11 performances. That will be followed by a Canadian tour, and a European tour next year.
"The reception of the work [in Edinburgh] took us by surprise," says Farber of her reimagining of the story as a drama set in post-apartheid South Africa. "The work is dark and challenging, and probably not what one would consider a popular commercial choice. But it was embraced. The continued success of the show is something we work for every moment without respite."
In Strindberg's original, the titular aristocratic woman finds herself trapped in a hysterical struggle to win over her father's servant Jean. But he is ambitiously scheming to take advantage of her wealth and sexual desire, behind the back of his own fiancée Christine, the household cook.
Farber's version turns that role (played by Thoko Ntshinga) into a black woman living on a Karoo farm in 2012. Here she is not just the mother of the labourer John (Bongile Mantsai), but the former nanny of Julie (Hilda Cronje), the daughter of the white farm master.
The kitchen is a metaphor for the country, the playwright says. "I wanted to create the highest stakes possible," she explains. "The son's 'betrayal' of his people and history by loving someone who comes from the other side of the divide is much more powerfully articulated when it involves loyalty to his mother, rather than another lover."
The way that Julie would have been raised by John's mother is a common occurrence in white homes in South Africa, says Farber. "A woman helping raise white children is not with children she gave birth to. This notion of absent or stolen mothers is something we must - among many other issues - face in South Africa as part of the collective unconscious," she says.
"I wanted to create a piece of theatre that addressed all these potent issues within the story of a man and a woman. They try to love one another, but they are trapped by too much history," comments Farber.
"The major themes of Mies Julie include the unaddressed issues - both unconscious and conscious - of post-apartheid South Africa: land restitution, memory, mothers and intimacy, as well as cultural narratives and discourse."
One of South Africa's most celebrated playwrights, Farber is known for works that draw on the testimonies of people in specific social contexts. She has created several such works in her home country. For Mies Julie, Farber researched topics ranging from land issues to the history of apartheid.
The reason she set the play in post-apartheid South Africa is simple. "Post-apartheid is the present, and the present is what struck me as the most urgent," she says.
"South Africa was a very sad place to grow up in. Even if you grew up on the side of the divide that benefited you due to your skin colour, the spiritual toll of maintaining a brutal regime like apartheid was enormous. As Booker T. Washington said, 'You can't keep a good man down without staying down with him'."
The audience response to the global tour has been wide ranging, but Farber believes that South Africans have found it especially difficult to watch.
"This is not a story or a show, but a hard-hitting confrontation with ourselves," she says. "Many have asked if my view of South Africa is really this bleak. But I do not see the vision for South Africa as bleak in Mies Julie. I see a love story. It is a love that is consistently crippled by two people's loyalty and attachment to the narratives of their [respective] people. But that possibility for love is there.
"I wanted audiences to witness two South Africans saying the things that we do not dare say in everyday life. I want it to function as a catharsis. Not the kind of catharsis that lets us off the hook, but rather a trigger that releases the honest, raw truth. Because in raw truth lies the possibility of healing."
Given the adaptation's cultural specificity, and its ambiguity, Farber is understandably amused when she's asked to predict audience interpretations of Mies Julie a decade on from now.
"Every work becomes a piece of its time," she says. "I hope this work will find other incarnations - in Palestine, Northern Ireland, or any country where land and identity have cost people so dearly."
Mies Julie Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, 1 Gloucester Road, Wan Chai, February 18-23, 25-27, 7.45pm, February 22-23, 3pm. HK$220-HK$480 Urbtix and HK Ticketing. This production contains adult content which includes nudity and explicit sexual scenes. Inquiries: 2824 2430