Mies Julie, and the increasing prevalence of multilingual theatre

I was not quick off the mark with my Mies Julie review, and now it’s finished its run at the Cultch. But I was grateful to have such a world-class production in Vancouver. The actors, native-born South Africans, have been all around the world (you can readily find reviews of the play in Cape Town, Edinburgh, London, New York, Hong Kong, and elsewhere) with this production.

 In Mies Julie, Bongile Mantsai, who plays the farm labourer John, speaks to his mother Christine (played by the actor Thoko Ntsinga) sometimes in English, but also in their native language. I listened closely, and heard clicks, so I suspected the language was a click language. I then found this interview with Bongole Mantsai, who discusses how he is Xhosa. In fact, the Xhosa is a click language, so I strongly suspect the characters were speaking in Xhosa. In this production, unlike some others I have seen, there were no surtitles, so we just had to guess what the two very emotional characters were saying in that conversation.

Learn more about Xhosa (and try a tongue-twister) in this BBC video

I’m not conversant enough with South Africa to know whether Julie and John, if the events were occurring on a real farm in the Karoo in South Africa in 2012, would speak in English (which they do in this play) or in Afrikaans. “Julie” is pronounced with a “j” sound rather than a “y”, so the English pronunciation is chosen, although the honorific Mies is obviously Afrikaans.

I have seen other productions this year that include languages other than English. “Night”, set in Nunavut, featured Inuktitut extensively. “Ga Ting” went back and forth between English and Cantonese. I missed seeing “Blue Man Group”, but it has no spoken language, so perhaps it is by default multilingual.

Tomson Highway’s operetta, “The Postmistress”, includes a libretto with songs in English, French, Cree, and even a bit of Spanish and Portuguese. When I saw this production in 2013 at Granville Island, the singer Patricia Cano moved amazingly well among these different languages. The postmistress, being from a small northern Quebec town, could be reasonably expected to be multilingual, and Tomson Highway himself is conversant in various languages (he says he is trilingual, but it sounds like he is conversant in at least two more). Patricia Cano explained each song before she sang it, so there was little loss of meaning. Perhaps in a fullscale production, there would be surtitles.

I saw La Cravate Bleue, in French, at the Vancouver Fringe Festival in 2013. I was able to understand it quite well, despite my limited understanding of spoken French. I had a summary of what the play was about, and the musical format made the progression of scenes quite clear.

In San Cristobal de las Casas, Chiapas, Mexico in January 2013, I saw two separate productions about Mayan cosmology, which featured theatre, dance, acrobatics, and music (on instruments modeled after the Mayan originals). One production was given in a Mayan language (of which there are several, but I suspect this one was Tzotzil) with Spanish surtitles, and the other was given in a Mayan language with Spanish and English surtitles. In Chiapas, there is a very strong push for the citizens to be proud of being Mayan (“preserve their heritage” implies a museum-like activity, and Mayans are clear they want to move forward). Presenting what were essentially two religious productions (of a sort) in Spanish would not have made sense in this context.


Productions of plays in translation are commonplace, whether by Chekhov, Michel Tremblay, or other non-anglophone author. Although the quality of translation is important, I think it may be a little less so in a theatre production where the actors embody the characters and give the script life, as opposed to a novel or particularly poetry. I hope we can see more non-English-language plays besides the typical (although profound) stalwarts, as well as more English-language plays from around the world that are outside the standard mainstream of the theatrical canon. When reading about some of the actors in Mies Julie, I found that there is a significant movement to produce theatre in South African townships. In fact, Thoko Ntsinga (the mother Christine in Mies Julie) is reworking a play, with some young South Africans, about sexual assault and drugs at parties that occur after matriculation.

Multilingual theatre is significant in terms of making theatre universal. It’s not surprising that Denmark, with both a multilingual population and a native language spoken by few, is a leader in this field, with the company Odin Teatret.

It is trite to say we are living in a global village. My hope is that we can become as conversant with the cultures of other places as we are with gadgets and cheap clothing. In a world where you expect to hear several languages on a typical public transit commute, multilingual theatre is one effective way to convey this globalization.

One thought on “Mies Julie, and the increasing prevalence of multilingual theatre

  1. Pingback: Review: Valley Song, Gateway Theatre until February 21 | Culture, Travel, Food, Music - Vancouver and Beyond

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