First time in Galway she poured the coffee for Druid – now Farber's a headliner
Yaël Farber is an award-winning South African director, whose version of Mies Julie is one of the flagship shows in this year's Galway Arts Festival. But when we spoke recently, the most urgent topic was Nelson Mandela.
"I can clearly remember being taught that he was the worst kind of terrorist," she said. "I remember picking up a book in a book shop and there was a photo of him that had been blacked out with marker. Under the censorship laws, they weren't even allowed publish his image.
"And then he came out of prison and transcended everybody's polarised ideas of him. Without sentimentalising it, he is the father to the nation. He got us through an incredibly fragile moment in our history with an extraordinary grace. There was a transcendent kind of wisdom with which he led the country at that moment."
And what of South Africa after Mandela? "There's a tenderness that a death unleashes that will be humbling for a while, and that will possibly remind us of what a miraculous transition did happen in our country. I think it will reawaken a certain kind of unity."
How long might that unity last, I wondered. "That depends on how cynical you are," she said. "We scar and callous very quickly."
Farber, though, isn't cynical. The vision in Mies Julie may be bleak, but it is not irreversibly so.
Strindberg's play tells of a night of passion and power-play between the daughter of an aristocrat and a servant in their house. Farber has reimagined this in a contemporary South African context, where the servant is black and the daughter is white. Their relationship is "a metaphor for South Africa", where love is "always possible", but "the two leads cannot drop their polarised narratives".
It is, she says, neither a "bleak" view nor a "huggy" view. "It's an exploration through one dark night between two human beings."
Optimism is possible, but "it has to be a hard-won optimism": it has to be earned by passing through the dark.
"There is the possibility of love, but there is also great darkness. The future hangs in the balance."
This won't be Farber's first time in Ireland. Her mother's people come from the North. Some years ago, after Farber had just won the "best director" award in South Africa, she needed to take time off, and came to Ireland. "I ended up in Galway, pouring coffee for Druid." (Quirkily, she never told them of her theatrical pedigree.)
'I lived on Quay Street. It was brutally cold. I had barely 50p for the electricity metre and had to buy hot water bottles at the pound shop."
In spite – or because – of this, she loved Galway, and its "beautiful, gritty, fragile, salty environment".
She had long recognised an affinity for the "great embracing of the darkness" in Irish theatre; living in Galway, she was particularly struck by the language, which, as in South Africa, had been adapted from the language of the coloniser and "has become its own beautiful language".
Irish writers, she realised, had "found a cultural identity in a language that had been forced on them", and this impressed her.
Farber sees the role of her work being like that of the Greek tragedies: "to offer a purer vision of the community to itself".
She calls it "exfoliating theatre" and "acupuncture theatre". "We aim to find where the nerve is and slip the needle in."
Theatre is "a brutal business", she notes. "It's pragmatic. If you fail, there's nowhere to hide. You need a strong sense of purpose – and I have that. As well, you have to tell an incredible story and make it compelling."
Mies Julie seems likely to have all those ingredients.
Mies Julie is at the Town Hall Theatre, July 22-28. See www.galwayartsfestival.com