Mies Julie, Assembly Hall/ The Sewing Machine, Assembly George Square, Edinburgh

 

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The Independent Culture

Mies Julie is the jewel of Assembly’s glittering South African season this year. Produced by Cape Town’s Baxter Theatre, it thrums with menace and passion. The relationship between Julie and John is played out as a savagely erotic dance with death; by the end, the stage is slick with blood and sweat.

Directed by Yael Farber, this sensational new version transposes Strindberg’s classic to post-apartheid South Africa and a farm in Cape Karoo. Julie is the daughter of the white Afrikaans master, John is one of his servants while Christine, his girlfriend, in the original becomes his mother (played with brooding dignity by Thokozile Ntshinga), who has cared for Julie as her nanny since birth.

It’s a clever transposition, piling yet more complex layers and the troubled history of a nation on to the master-slave dynamic, though at times the contemporary references are rather heavily signposted. The performances from Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai, though, are electrifying. With the help of on-stage musicians and a sinister soundscape of buzzing, clanking and dripping, Farber creates a fervid atmosphere: even when you want to, it’s impossible to tear your eyes away from it.

The Sewing Machine is a far quieter affair but still packs a hefty emotional punch. Magdaleen first heard the whirr of the Singer when she was in the womb and it’s been a love affair ever since. Now 81, nearing the end of her life in a retirement home, her head “empty like a biscuit tin after the school holidays”, she is preparing to put away worldly possessions and sell her beloved companion. As she winds threads and tidies patterns, she tells us the story of her life as a wife, mother and grandmother.

Rachelle Greeff’s script switches between lyrical passages about loneliness, ageing and the hundred tiny disappointments and triumphs of family life and details about the harsh realities of life under apartheid and the dangers of contemporary South Africa. Magdaleen, played by Sandra Prinsloo, is hard to pin down - at once doddery old woman, fiddling with tea and doilies and reactionary product of apartheid. The final revelation of her family’s tragic secret creeps up slowly and pricks like a needle. A fine performance.

To 27 August (0131 623 3030)

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