This new production of Miss Julie, set in present-day South Africa, may be as shocking as the original was in 1888 Sweden. Where the sexual congress between servant and master was quietly revealed in nuanced language back in Sweden, here the two actors appear to be copulating in a frenzy of desire right there, before your eyes, on the kitchen table. Welcome to Mies Julie, directed and choreographed by Yael Farber.
The touring production at the Cultch re-examines August Strindberg's Miss Julie by updating the story for a modern audience. The stodgy 1888 Swedish play was once revolutionary, but now it is an unworkable museum piece. This production by the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town and the South African State Theatre provides new life to a dusty classic. In a sense, Miss Julie has returned from the grave.
Contemporary South Africa is an ideal environment in which to re-stage this classic because it allows the fundament power imbalance between the two main characters to be maintained. Julie (Hilda Cronje) is the spoiled and bored adult daughter of a rich estate owner and John (Bongile Mantsai) is her father's financially dependent servant.
The story unfolds during a heat wave. The sweltering heat affects all of the characters. Perspiration, the wiping of brows, the tossing back of heads, all indicate the discomfort. Heat is the main theme of this play: the temperature of the room, the temperature (and temperaments) of the characters. Julie and John are in heat, to be blunt, but have not yet crossed the line of social class and proper behaviour. Today, however, may be different. The heat, it seems, clouds reason.
The compulsion to copulate culminates not only in a fascinating and surprising visual atop the kitchen table, but it produces an endless chain of unpleasant emotions only occasionally relieved by more sex. In this overheated world, sex is explosive and never satisfying. Hatred, disgust, love, fawning and cruelty all ensue. "Hit me," yells a momentarily masochistic Julie, rejected by John and filled with self-hate. She viciously slaps herself about the head when John refuses to attack her. What does Julie really want? She does not know herself.
Patrick Curtis, set designer, has created a functional, minimalist set that reflects and deepens the drama. A red tile floor represents blood and heat, life and death. A stove sits alone in the middle of the room, representing "kitchen," and "appetite" and reminds us of the heat. A tree stump, fashioned out of thick metal wire, somehow lives in the kitchen, representing death. A birdcage, hanging high near the upstage wall, swings back and forth throughout the drama, reminding us of the prisons in which these characters live.
Farber has carefully choreographed this piece. Every movement is designed and carefully executed, too perfect and planned to appear realistic. Faber's impressionistic vocabulary includes running, jumping, sexually explicit dancing, and an intercourse sequence so practiced and rhythmic it must have been rehearsed with a metronome. The actors are fearless which is part of this production's power.
Cronje gives us a pathetic, trapped, miserable Julie. She rarely smiles, her face mostly beseeching except when she shifts into sadism. Her body is lithe and her dancing expresses longing: for love, for sex, for belonging. She sweats (as do the others characters) in the endless heat that reduces her inhibitions and social concerns. Her movement at the beginning reveals sexual longing, all erotic movement, she practically mounts the upstage wall. Her sexual expression does not reveal any healthy, pleasant, dream of romance. She is stuck in heat and craves relief. She gives us a woman out of control, and a woman in crisis.
Cronje's slight body is tremendously strong. She moves with rapid, controlled movement, leaping and contorting her body to indicate her character's powerful emotional drive and powerful social position. She shifts from heiress to animal and back again. Cronje's Julie is not an ingénue desperate for seduction but more of a slave owner who has the power of life and death over her sexual conquest and no power over herself.
As John, Mantsai shows us strength and fear. Power and weakness. As he dominates Julie sexually, he is filled with pride and swagger, then humiliation fills him during his post-coital realization of his social rank. We watch him consume and reject this manipulative woman, over and over again. Mantsai's John is physically strong but emotionally labile. Mantsai gives us a John who cannot manage or understand his dilemma, cannot combine his two selves: the powerful young man and the dependent servant. John is trapped in a social system that needs him and hates him. In this heat, it seems, everyone is suffocating. Cronje and Mantsai shows us that suffering.
The inevitable ending is as shocking and memorable as the other visual elements of this astonishing production. We rarely see the design and directing of this calibre, and the performances remind us of the heights to which live theatre may aspire. We are fortunate that this production that has been touring for two years was able to stop in Vancouver.
Mies Julie, written and directed by Yael Farber, based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg, a production of the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in association with the South African State Theatre, at the Cultch until April 19. Buy tickets here.