after August Strindberg
at Assembly Mound, Tuesday 21st August 2012
To anyone who doesn’t believe classic texts should be modernised: go and see Mies Julie, Yael Farber’s post-apartheid resetting of Strindberg’s 1888 play. By updating the text and placing it in a modern South Africa, Farber and his team extrapolate the tensions in the play, transposing the theme of class for that of race, and in doing so create a gloriously acted, somewhat ethereal rendition of the play which speaks to a supposedly more equal world. This is why we fuck with plays.
Whereas Strindberg’s original cast Miss Julie and John as a white aristocrat’s daughter and poor labourer respectively, Farber’s version sees an Afrikaans woman and black man attempting to hold a discussion and reconcile their differences. They are both powerful in their way; Julie because she is white and John because he is a man, and this eternal power struggle manifests itself in raw, carnal ways.
If there’s anyone who comes out on top in Mies Julie, it is John, though that perhaps shows my own prejudices and beliefs. Even after Mandela’s rule, the natives of South Africa are still subjugated and demeaned by white leaders and wealthy businessmen after the cult of neoliberalism invaded the country, and though John’s actions are hardly excusable, he seems to be far more in touch with why he is angry.
The first half of the play is relatively slow, but as soon as Miss Julie and John realise their feelings for one another, the production picks up pace and features some horrifyingly brutal but raw moments. Bongile Mantsai’s John is a sturdy, grounded man who’s in-tune with how he feels about the world and has a clear sense of right and wrong. As his mother Christine, Thokozile Ntshinga allows some stability, and demonstrates the past generation’s inability to recognise the injustices in the world. Hilda Cronje’s Julie is a tour de force, both beguiling and cold, smart but naïve. Within her performance, she encapsulates both the guilt and righteousness of the white conqueror.
Though Farber’s production says a lot about the unequal, unfair modern South Africa, it also gives pause for thought about the potential sexism in Strindberg’s original; by transporting the play into a contemporary situation, the questionable aspects are exaggerated. Julie suggests that she needs John emotionally while he needs her socially, which though understandable is a little presumptuous and fails to recognise that they both need each other emotionally and socially. To suggest otherwise is to cast women as purely emotional and men purely cognitive, which is hardly a very twenty-first century attitude.
An ever-present soundtrack comes to life during moments of intensity, and a subtle lighting design accentuates the differences between Julie and John, using cold and warm states to suggest where our allegiance should lie. Mies Julie is an incredibly resonant and powerful piece, reminding us that even when we believe equality has been reached, there is always further to go. With a bit of tweaking, Strindberg is shown to be just as important now as 120 years ago, as Farber’s production presents a strong case to all those people who believe plays set in the past should stay in the past.