Not being one to travel to Edinburgh or read the New York Times‘ theater reviews (it’s just such a tease!), I wound up missing most of the pre-London hype surrounding Mies Julie, the updated version of Strindberg’s play set in modern South Africa. Even though the seriously hot posters in the Underground really caught my eye, I wasn’t going to go see a play I’d just seen last year, especially not way out west in Hammersmithville.
But then the Guardian put out a preview that really changed my mind. Thinking of that master/servant aesthetic suddenly reconfigured in the context of post-Apartheid South Africa … that’s a place where it would actually mean something. And apartheid didn’t end that long ago. In this context, being a bored, spoiled girl interested in playing with one of the servants … well, the stakes would be much, much higher than they are in my world, or in the world of a hundred and fifty years ago, when, even if you were a servant, you really could just pick up and leave and move to the big city. The original Miss Julie may have geuninely believed in her superiority to the servants, but how does it change if the people who you thought existed to serve you are now legally your equal? What if some of them have a grudge about their situation?
What if they’ve been there for a really long time and remember quite well how badly they were treated?
What if you’re actually living on their land?
Now THAT is the kind of powderkeg I wanted to see blow wide open on stage. Director/writer Yael Farber doesn’t have to make John (Bongile Mantsai) cultured and “nearly one of us;” from his accent to his body to the way he brushes boots and keeps busy doing chores every minute, he is fully “other;” but an incredibly sexy other. He has had a long relationship with the brittle, brutal Julie (Hilda Cronje, a bit one note but still charismatic), the only daughter of a Boer farmer who’s promised to put a bullet through the head of any (black) servant who dared touch her – and then shoot Julie. She’s fresh out of having her engagement broken, has a likely history of mental instability (mom committed suicide), and has the sultry, sex-focused vision of a girl just of age on a place where there’s really not a lot to do for fun. It’s inevitable that their desire will finally break down the huge barriers of class and race and history that divide them; when it does, it’s a tempest of a power that leaves King Lear’s looking like a few raindrops on an otherwise clear day. But with all of that attraction, all of that chemistry (woo! burning it up from the 20th row!), the sex just isn’t enough for them to change their lives into some new structure, no matter how much they dream. And really, just how much do they even like each other? Is John just trying to get revenge for the theft of his family’s land? Is Julie just looking for a way to frame John? Was it a mutual power trip? Is there even room for love in this tsumani?
What I love about Strindberg is that, in his plays, the games people play with each others minds never stop. Add into the mix John’s mom’s bone deep love (for John and Julie) and religious conviction (great performance by Thoko Ntshinga), the freaky spiritual connection with “home” (as represented by the ghost woman who also served, to me, as herald of impending death), and the shock-you-out-of-your-seats rawness of the sexual explosion between John and Julie and, as an audience member, you no longer know what to believe. Is this play a tragedy? Is it a political drama? Is it just the horrible truth of how fucked up people really are underneath the little skins of manners that society has us put on? That, I think, is Stringberg’s real truth, and Mies Julie hugely succeeds my making that gory, wretched, untamed core of human nature visible to the naked eye.
(This review is for a performance that took place on Sunday, March 10th, 2013. It continues at Riverside Studios through May 19th. Totally worth the trip to Hammersmith and as a bonus it’s only 80 minutes long. Phoar.)