In order to have its full erotic charge, any production of August Strindberg’s ‘Miss Julie’ needs to be situated on a social faultline. When it was written in 1888, the taboo of a haughty aristocratic daughter seducing her father’s servant was enough to create shockwaves. But ‘Mademoiselle Julie’ – a recent, distinctly tepid, high profile production starring Juliette Binoche and updated to modern Europe – challenged the play’s continuing relevance.
Such doubts are exploded by this extraordinary production, which has sailed down from the Edinburgh Festival Fringe by way of New York on a sea of ecstatic reviews. Set, symbolically, in the semi-desert region of the Karoo in modern South Africa, writer/director Yael Farber’s ‘Mies Julie’ uses racial and political tensions to raise the sexual temperature to boiling.
As white, wealthy farmer’s daughter Julie, Hilda Cronje prowls the stage like a leopard – when she’s facing away from the action she presses herself against the back-stage wall as if she would make love to the bricks if there were no other option. A constant electronic subsonic hum accompanied by the low trill of a saxophone contributes to the sense of simmering unease.
Farber’s production paints a desolate picture of post-apartheid South Africa. In the kitchen that all too appropriately becomes a melting pot, Bongile Mantsai’s black servant John cuts a dignified, restless figure, torn between resentment of the oppression endured by his family for generations and the sexual urge for Julie that violently contradicts such emotions. We watch him becoming literally possessed by his desire, as the two imbibe a toxic cocktail of hate and lust. When they finally have sex, it’s volcanic.
In a lightning flash of brilliance Farber has made Christine – normally John’s fiancée – his mother, so we can see how the mixture of resentment and love has festered through the generations. When Julie suspects she is pregnant she describes her womb as ‘your land-grab’ to John – making her last, fatal act, a sickening assertion of her disintegrating dignity.
Awash with blood, sweat, and hate, this is one of the most galvanizing productions you’re likely to see for a long time. It reignites Strinberg’s vision at the same time as reinforcing a devastating portrait of a country trying to heal its wounds. Rachel Halliburton