Theatre review: Mies Julie, Riverside Theatre, London

 

Last autumn, the Barbican played host to Mademoiselle Julie, a French production of Strindberg's 1888 classic that turned the play into a chicly timeless existential conflict. 

By removing any real sense of taboo-fostering social constraint, it neutered a play in which the sexual charge and the political challenges are indivisible. Strindberg's essential master/slave dynamic is reinstated with a breathtaking vengeance now in Mies Julie, an adaptation that transplants the proceedings to post-apartheid South Africa and to the hot, steamy kitchen of a farm in the semi-desert Karoo region on Freedom Day 2012. 

Outside the workers are growing volatile and there's “anger on the wind”. Inside, the sexual tension is building towards an orgasm of violence and false release for Mies Julie, the Afrikaans daughter of the proprietor and John, the Xhosan servant. As the former, Hilda Cronje, a slinky sullen slip of a thing, keeps veering, with coldly burning caprice, from come-on to contempt. Bongile Mantsai's strapping John blacks his master's boots with a fierce distracted agitation more as brooding displacement activity than as duty. In the adaptor's own electric production (first seen at the Edinburgh fringe lase summer), these actors perform the dance of death with a disciplined erotic abandon that reminded me, at times, of the work of DV8.

Yael Farber's version diverges in several sharply significant ways from the original.  In Strindberg, Christine is John's fiancé. Here she is his mother who is still, in weary old age, treated as a skivvy.   She also had to be a loving mother to the neglected Julie and this has bred in John an adoration of his privileged white counterpart that is actually reversed resentment and self-hatred.  The mother's stoic mix of the fatalistic and the pragmatic is projected with massive dignity by Thoko Ntshinga.  A tree-stump protrudes through the terracotta-tiled floor and there's a tremendous sense that the ground under the kitchen is a microcosm of the land expropriated from the blacks.

To emphasise this further, Farber introduces a fourth character, Ukhokho (a transfixing Tandiwe Nifirst Lungisa). She is an other-worldly Xhosan ancestor – at once spectral and very solidly and implacably there, as she creates sounds of utterly arresting unearthliness. At one point, she emits a low guttural drone that would be the envy of Louis Armstrong. And, at the start, she makes a slow, eerie, ceremonial progress to the stage where she bats that famous birdcage and send its on a queasy pendulum arc. Oh and John does not go back to blacking his master's boots.

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