They can cover what they’ve done but the roots keep breaking through . . . the roots will never go away.
The original version of Miss Julie dealt with issues of class and gender, love and lust, and was so shocking to contemporary society in 1888 that it was banned in England for fifty years. In this powerful, visceral and thrilling adaptation, South African playwright and director Yael Farber proves both that Strindberg’s original is a versatile and malleable text that triumphantly succeeds in a modern setting, and that it still has the ability to stun a 21st Century audience.
Farber sets her adaptation on a fictitious homestead called Weeping Farm in the arid Karoo region of South Africa. It is Freedom Day, 2012, eighteen years since the end of the oppressive apartheid regime. The farm’s black labourers are celebrating, but three people are still indoors: Julie, the only child of the white man who owns the farm, John, her father’s favourite servant, and Christine, John’s mother, who has worked on the farm her whole life and literally erased her identity scrubbing the kitchen floor (she has worn away her fingerprints, meaning she cannot vote). Over the next 90 minutes, tensions between them rise inexorably, finally bubbling over in a moment of devastating tragedy.
Hilda Cronje is electrifying as Julie. Bored and sullen, feeling sorry for herself after being dumped by her fiancé, Julie taunts John for her own entertainment, moving provocatively about the stage, flaunting her body and ordering him to dance with her. Cronje’s performance is intensely physical – she circles John like a lion does its prey – yet she also manages to convey Julie’s vulnerability, sadness and loneliness; you believe John when he calls her a ‘lost little girl’, even though she is haughty and commanding in her dealings with him.
Bongile Mantsai as John is a brilliant match for Cronje’s Julie; he too is taut and athletic, and you can feel the tension seething through him as he sits there furiously polishing his master’s boots, desperately trying to ignore Julie’s advances. But he can’t resist her overt flirtation and taunts of ‘Kaffir’ and ‘be a man not a boy’ for long, and we see him giving violent voice to his resentment at his situation and his true feelings for Julie: their eventual coupling is feral and brutal and beautifully choreographed.
The couple’s first and only (post-coital) tender kiss is a cruel picture of the life they might have had with each other if they weren’t so conditioned and burdened by the society in which they were brought up, where very little has changed: ‘Welcome to the new South Africa, Mies Julie,’ says John, ‘in which miracles leave us exactly where we began’. John admits to having loved Julie since they were children, but his is a love not born of affection, but of admiration and fear; deep down what he feels is intense resentment as his mother, Christine, spent more time looking after Julie (whose mother committed suicide when she was young) than she did her own son. ‘You have everything of mine and I have nothing,’ John says bitterly at one point, while Julie swings from desperate naïveté (‘we can make something old and ugly new’) to ancient, entrenched ideas of ownership (‘you’re mine now, not his’); tragically, neither is able to escape the weight of the past.
Farber also deepens the tensions between these two by dealing head-on with the complicated and highly topical issue of Land Reform: John resents the fact that he and the other workers on Weeping Farm are treated ‘like squatters’ when, historically, the land belongs to them as first settlers of it and the bones of their ancestors are buried beneath the kitchen floor (‘You stole our land and gave us the Bible’, he spits). Julie argues that her own family’s claim on the same piece of land is just as strong, and says that they will never depart as their bodies are buried ‘underneath the willow tree in the backyard’. Both John and Julie are inexorably bound to the same piece of land and neither can leave, and yet, in a bitter twist, neither wants to stay; both are desperate for the long-promised freedom to become a reality, and they know that will never happen on Weeping Farm.
Designer Patrick Curtis has strikingly recreated the South African homestead kitchen, complete with a cracked red stone floor, numerous pairs of boots for poor John to polish, and various deadly farming implements such as axes and scythes in an ominous portent of what is to come. There is also a tree stump that rises from the floor, another signifier of the rural setting, but its roots are also a powerful symbol of the pull the land exerts on all those that live there.
The Pencer brothers’ sound design is magnificent, complementing and enhancing the tension created by Farber and her cast; you can almost feel the heat and humidity of a storm about to break (‘it can bewitch you, this endless promise of rain,’ intones Christine, prophetically). Farber’s decision to cast Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa, who plays traditional Xhosa instruments and sings with a deep, sonorous voice, as representative of Christine and John’s ancestors works very well; this ghostly figure brings the oppressive weight of history to life and adds an extra layer to a soundscape that thumps and throbs with desire, anger and resentment.
Farber’s Mies Julie is an intensely passionate and intelligent adaptation, so good you would think Strindberg’s play was originally conceived for the contemporary South African setting. Farber’s vision of her homeland is shocking in its brutal honesty, portraying as it does the devastating consequences for those living in a South Africa still unable to come to terms with its past. Mies Julie is that rare and wonderful combination of ambitious, powerful, political writing and electrifying performances. It’s a harrowing 90 minutes of theatre, every one of them charged with emotion, and so intense the actors are broken at the end. This is an essential, unforgettable production. Whatever you do, don’t miss it.