Miss Julie was written by the notable Swedish playwright and novelist August Strindberg in 1888. The daughter of a nobleman enters a kitchen and finds herself in front of the footman. A footman she desires. An erotic struggle of power, lust and love follows – made bitter, tumultuous and complicated by their difference in station.
Strindberg’s story could very well supplant itself into a raunched up version of Downton Abbey in the UK, but fits even more interestingly into playwright and director Yael Farber’s reworking set in the Karoo of modern South Africa. Twenty years has passed since the abolition of apartheid, yet those dry and desolate farmlands are stuck in their old ways of racial segregation. It is tempting to turn any review of a play set in South Africa or exploring mixed-race relationships into one of politics. While the taboo surrounding a White woman and her Black servant engaging in a love affair is a critical external focus of this piece – brought over to Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios from UCT’s Baxter Theatre centre – much deeper themes emerge, raising the play and its action to something much more interesting.
It is primal, earthy and extremely erotic – perhaps too much for a British audience who are used to issues of sexual longing being dressed up in slapstick or toilet humour. Farber allows her characters to give vent to hatred, racism and prejudice – something else the British stage rarely sees unadulterated – mixed in among the passion and tenderness which Julie and John have built up for each other of a lifetime spent in the same household but never together.
Hilda Cronje’s body may wow us from the off, but it is a while before she takes off as Miss Julie – daughter to the landowner of the farmstead. The first thirty minutes I spent worrying the lead actress and the chemistry between what should have been a sizzling pair would short circuit.
Bongile Mantsai as John is magnificent throughout: be he leaping agile as a dancer over tables, shining boots with sexual frustration or pounding Mies Julie on top of the kitchen table.
The quaking undercurrents of indigenous African magic is evoked with smoke and traditional Xhosa music and singing by Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa as the ghost and ancestor – rightful owner of the lands on which Veenen Plaas (Weeping Willow Farm) lies, beneath which she is buried.
One element Farber has inserted into the play that is not apparent in its Swedish predecessor is the character of Christine, played by Thoko Ntshinga. John’s mother has spent a lifetime cleaning the farmhouse kitchen floors and being an almost surrogate mother to Julie. Something John resents the White woman for immensely. White children being raised by their “native” nannies is not a wholly new concept in fiction (and probably likely in fact, too), from PK and his sweetheart Maria in The Power of One (1992) to Mary Lennox in The Secret Garden (1993) with her Indian ayah.
We are spared neither blood, sweat nor tears – the bloody loss of Julie’s virginity, ferocious love-making and then her violent ending of her own fate. Mies Julie is ninety minutes of non-stop emotional rollercoaster. Will she, won’t he, will they, won’t they. Exhausting, real. This play leaves ripples inside you, trains of thought that set you down path of thinking – what if I were Miss Julie… What if I were John…
Performances until May 19th. Avoid eating at the Riverside Studios’ Restaurant. They do a lovely Malbec, however. Sadly no South African wines appear on the menu to match the occasion.