Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Theatre review: Mies Julie

Strindberg's Miss Julie seems to be striking a chord with theatre-makers at the moment, we're onto the third adaptation of the play I've seen in the last year. At least, unlike the last attempt I saw, Yael Farber's Mies Julie relocates the action to a new setting that still makes sense of the old story: Post-Apartheid South Africa, on the surface a country that's made huge leaps in racial relations in the last two decades, but in reality still simmering with tensions that come down to the ancestral ownership of the land the action takes place on. We're in the farmhouse kitchen of Veenen Plaas ("Weeping Farm,") an estate in the unforgiving Karoo region. The landowner is away on the night of a big celebration by the staff, and his daughter Julie (Hilda Cronje) braves first the party, then the kitchen where ageing maid Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) and her son John (Bongile Mantsai) are working into the night.

In this version of the story, the event being celebrated by the black staff is the anniversary of the end of Apartheid, so there's something particularly unthinking about the white boss' daughter inviting herself along to the party - not to mention dangerous, as John warns her she could inflame underlying resentments, Of course Mies Julie is after more danger than that, as she proceeds to seduce John, who's been in love with her since childhood.


Farber also directs what is a highly physical production, Cronje and Mantsai's movements often dance-like. She's made Mies Julie a simmering piece of sexuality as the rather predatory Julie plays a game of seduction with a definite self-destructive edge: We're reminded that her mother committed suicide, and she's certainly playing with fire. The actors give intense, physical performances (although nul points for the budgiecide scene, which features zero sleight-of-hand) backed by Daniel and Matthew Pencer's oppressive sound design - too oppressive at times, after an hour and a half of it almost unbroken it does start to turn into an irritating drone.

Farber's is a fairly free adaptation of the original. Many familiar subplots remain - like Christine having to prepare a potion to make Julie's dog miscarry, here given an added spike of irony by the fact that a black dog has impregnated the mistress' bitch. John, however, no longer has a fiancée, merely a vague and probably false boast of many sexual conquests; ultimately leaving him as alone as Julie.


Obviously the play's commentary on class here becomes one on race and after their night of agressive sex Julie and John's true resentments of each other's skin colour come to the surface. But in fact what Farber really turns the play into is one about land, in a very physical sense: Christine is haunted by the ghost (Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa) of an ancestor buried under the house, which ultimately means she can't entertain her son's suggestion of leaving. And what breaks Julie in the end is that her night with John leaves her feeling rootless: No longer a standoffish part of the white family who've owned the land for centuries, nor having any ancestral claim like the black workers who remain there.


This is an interesting, full throttle take on Strindberg's play, although I'd now be quite happy if people gave Miss Julie a rest for a few years - WON'T SOMEBODY THINK OF THE BUDGIES?

Mies Julie by Yael Farber, based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg, is booking until the 19th of May at Riverside Studio 2.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

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