Blazingly intense, Mies Julie is a visceral and superbly executed play about race, sexuality, and power. Yael Farber’s script adapts August Strindberg’s classic piece of naturalistic theatre, Miss Julie, by relocating the story from 19th century Sweden to contemporary South Africa.
John (Bongile Mantsai) and Julie (Hilda Cronje) have grown up side-by-side: Julie as the white daughter of a wealthy farmer and John as the black son of the farmer’s housekeeper. Unequal power dynamics have haunted their relationship, and yet both characters are confined by their social status. The action all takes place in a single night as Julie tries to seduce John. John is trapped: despite his apparent desire for her, he knows that having sex with Julie would jeopardise him and his mother’s employment, as Julie’s father would be certain to fire them, or worse. Furthermore, John’s family have lived there since they were displaced by white settlers centuries ago, and John’s mother could not bear to leave their ancestral land – to do so, she thinks, would be to betray her forebears. As the audience watch, transfixed, these tensions rise to a combustible boil.
Such an intensely character-driven piece demands phenomenal acting, and in this regard the show does not disappoint. All three actors assume their roles with an exquisite aptitude that leads you to forget they are acting. The chemistry between Cronje and Mantsai is startlingly impressive, their quick and vital interactions ensure that the show is smooth and pacy. This performance is further strengthened by the show’s dynamic choreography. On occasion, the actors leap across the stage or onto furniture as their conversations become heated.
Patrick Curtis’ set fits perfectly with the brooding tension of the play. An empty birdcage swings creepily over the stage, a ceiling fan turns with a lazy ominousness, and the clutter of furniture cast long foreboding shadows. Around the sides of the stage sit the trio of musicians whose eerie notes percolate throughout the play. Aesthetically, it’s a beautifully assembled production.
Through the pained lives of its ambiguous protagonists, the show explores colonialism, sex and power relations, dealing impressively with social themes without compromising the integrity or depth of the characters. Julie uses her position of power as a white woman over John during her sexual advances, while John feels powerless to do anything but stoically ignore her harassment. At other times Julie seems infuriatingly oblivious to her white privilege and to the on-going impacts of colonialism. For instance, she is incensed when John declares that he has an unresolved claim to the land which was stolen from his ancestors and accusingly demands “you think my body is your restitution, my womb your land grab?”.
This is a fierce, jarring, and triumphantly realised production that speaks to important social and political themes. It will enthrall your attention and leave you with many questions to ponder.
Assembly Rooms (Venue 20)
Until 27th August
Photo credit: Murdo MacLeod