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Mies Julie

Susannah Gill


Yael Farber, based on August Strindberg's Miss Julie
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith, until May 19

It's probably a sign of progress when everyday life no longer furnishes dramatists with the ready infrastructure for tragedy. This at least was the consolation I took from last year's Barbican production of Mademoiselle Julie starring Juliette Binoche, which drained the play of much of its power by transporting it to a modern-day setting. Strindberg's claustrophobic portrayal of one night's malignant liaison between mistress and servant, written in 1888 and seething with lust, shame and domination, draws half its stakes from a caste system which has all but dissolved in modern Europe. If a wealthy young woman and her father's servant are fundamentally equal in dignity, divided by nothing more onerous than a difference in occupation, where's the scandal in their coming together? We might as well be sipping tea at Downton Abbey. Miss Julie demands to be set in a social environment where the lines dividing haves and have-nots sizzle with taboo.

Yael Farber's Mies Julie is a welcome renovation of Strindberg's classic, transplanting it to modern-day South Africa 18 years after the end of apartheid. On the sweltering night of Freedom Day, Julie (Hilda Cronje), the young daughter of a Boer estate owner who's sworn to put a bullet in his daughter's head if she lets a black man touch her, prowls the kitchen barefoot, libidinous and scantily clad, while John (Bongile Mantsai), the black servant, furiously cleans her father's boots. Smoke, sex and an impending storm thicken the air as the two approach and repel each other in a feral pas de deux of desire and resentment, longing and cruelty, while Christine (Thoko Ntshinga), the servant who raised Julie, looks warily and wearily on.

Farber's production makes some bold and occasionally brilliant changes to Strindberg's original. Christine, the third member of the play's triangle, becomes John's mother rather than his fiancee, infusing the sexual struggle between John and Julie with a poignant rivalry for parental love. The play is haunted not by Julie's absent father but by a keening African ancestress (Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa), at once pitiful and majestic in scavenged finery. And, most conspicuously, the play's two pivotal acts of sex and violence are brought out of the shadows and enacted blow by gory blow onstage.

Farber's adaptation falters, though, where explicitness veers into a lack of subtlety. Reassigning the play's darker psychological elements - cruelty, loathing, exploitation -to the influence of post-apartheid South Africa flattens the complexity of Strindberg's original characters. John and Julie become not ambivalent and morally compromised human beings struggling between desire and dominance but star-crossed lovers haplessly caught in the machinery of racial oppression. As a result, the metastasising relationship between them descends into a tedious cycle of 'I hate you / I love you' lumbered with racial slurs and heavy-handed political symbolism. The play's emotional dynamic range is correspondingly limited. Ntshinga as Christine exudes an understated dignity, but the two lead actors start portentous and rapidly become shouty, which may explain the shock-mongering climax, involving a literal bucket of blood, which caused the lady in front of me to drop her designer handbag. When you start at nine there's nowhere to go but 11.

What Mies Julie does extremely well is depict a sealed world devoid of transcendence, an irredeemably toxic environment that contaminates love and faith alike. The performance space is small, sweaty and unbounded - with no walls and no raised stage, the action at times threatens queasily to spill over into the audience - and the play rises without interval to its climax.

In this world there is no freedom and no escape, no right choice and no happy ending. Julie, John and the devout, stoic Christine are all bound by blood and ancestry to the land which consumes them. Christine's answer is to pray and endure but John revolts against his mother's faith, which he sees as submission to a swindle: 'They took our land and handed us the Bible.'

Julie's final act violently repudiates the idealised image of post-apartheid South Africa as rainbow nation. Their nihilism implicates an entire nation. 'Welcome to the new South Africa,' sneers John, 'where miracles happen and leave things exactly the same.' A blow struck for truth, or just another easy story to tell?