Essential adaptation of Strindberg’s classic
This article is from 2012.
Truly great productions of classic texts can reveal the play within the play. Who knew that beneath the staid formality of August Strindberg’s Miss Julie lurked a play as explosive and heartwrenching as Yael Farber’s South African-set rewrite?
Like Patrick Marber, whose After Miss Julie transposes Strindberg’s plot to post-war Britain, Farber strips the text down to a taut three-hander. In fact, taut is too loose: there’s not a smidgeon of superfluity here. Farber gives us the core nucleus.
What becomes clear are the atomic bonds – equal push and pull – between Mies Julie (Hilde Cronje) and her servant John (Bongile Mantsai). Relocated to a South African farmhouse, beneath which both sets of ancestors – black Xhosa and white Afrikaans – are buried side by side, their sexual entwining is a serious trangression, even if it mirrors the picture below ground.
From there, however, their situation swells to a monumental impasse. Three or four times they reach the cusp of eloping as equals, only for one or other to cough up some half-swallowed pride. Neither is quite willing to give up their claim to the land, to forget past grievances for the sake of a better life. They become two snare traps biting at each other’s metal jaws.
This is absolutely Miss Julie, but it is also absolutely contemporary. Play and setting mutually illuminate each other brilliantly. Strindberg’s drama is also stretched to its fullest. Farber’s text, which replaces John’s fiancé with his upstanding mother, is fiercely direct, invoking bald love and hate. Mantsai and Cronje play it with such full-blooded force – his physical violence matched by her stinging words – that the effect is devastating, even if the brusqueness occasionally snags.
Not that this Baxter Theatre production is all muscle and heart. Intelligent details abound – Cronje’s flicker of terrified Lolita when John suddenly, ferociously, reciprocates; John’s wine glass that shifts the status – and profound lines burst out. Essential.
Assembly Hall, 623 3030, until 27 Aug, 2pm, £14–£16 (£13–£15).