Tale of power and lust, stripped to the bare bones
TOWN HALL THEATRE, GALWAY
'Mies Julie' is not 'Miss Julie'; it would be a mistake to think this is simply a new version of August Strindberg's classic 19th Century Swedish play, with the setting transposed to South Africa. Director and playwright Yael Farber has instead taken Strindberg's drama about power, love and lust, stripped it back to the bare bones, shredding Strindberg's words and creating a play to speak of South Africa today, its politics and culture in the process.
Here, the footservant Jean has become John; his fiancee Kristen is now his mother Christine. But one of the crucial differences between these 'Julies' is that while Strindberg's play deals with the issues of class and gender in its exploration of love and freedom, here we have a play focusing more on property, ownership and the huge added dimension of race, which is perhaps one tangle too far.
It is April 27, 2012; a hot and sultry night and most of the staff on an extensive homestead in the semi-desert region of Karoo are having a rowdy party to celebrate Freedom Day, the end of apartheid. But the conscientious John is busy cleaning his master's boots when the master's daughter Julie arrives into the kitchen and their worlds explode.
She thinks everything can change by their newly unveiled love; he believes love is not enough to change anything. And everything is very significant and symbolic. The tree stump in the middle of the kitchen tiles represents all the ancestors of the servants, those who the land really belongs to, their bones buried amongst the tree's butchered roots. Superstition and spirits in need of resolution are behind every thought. Blood will be spilled again to seep through to these ghosts of the past.
In the original, it is ambiguous if Julie really loves Jean or this is manipulation to try to gain her own freedom from the bird cage of her life. Here, her love is unambiguous, it is laid out in front of us. And there are so many emotional reversals, so much instability, it is quite dizzy making. When Julie does begin to fully disintegrate, there are moments of truth. But it feels too little too late.
The central performances by Hilda Cronje as Julie and Bongile Mantsai as John are both extraordinarily physical and impassioned. Music plays a central role and there is a rawness to this, in the energies and also in the writing, which has such bluntness as to be difficult to connect with. And while you do admire what it has achieved in terms of bringing out this important South African story about the dispossessed, it falls dramatically short in its ability to connect for this to ring true.