by Yael Farber based on Miss Julie by August Strindberg.
Riverside Studios (Studio 2) Crisp Road To 19 May 2013.
Tue-Sat 8pm Sun 6pm Mat Sat 2.30pm.
Runs 1hr 30min No interval.
TICKETS: 020 8237 1111.
Review: Timothy Ramsden 11 March.
Stark tragedy of blood, sweat, toil and tears.
Despite its practical advantages (three actors, one set, only 90 minutes’ material to rehearse) the popularity of Strindberg’s chamber shocker through a feminist age is surprising. Class, which has a sexually dominant male cowering at his master’s call, has receded, and the playwright, for all he was fighting inner demons, has a powerful agenda against women. Yet the play, showing active female sexuality within the late 19th-century aristocracy, remains provocative.
South African Yael Farber’s reworked script shifts to South Africa today, cutting the sexual abnormality of Julie’s parents while being mercifully concise on past matters like the pair’s contrasting fascination with falling or rising. John is the Black servant and Julie the wild-child White daughter, race replacing class as source of the power that taints passion.
The earth beneath them continues the conflict. Her family built the house, but his ancestors’ bones lie under it. Desire is driven by hatred. She slinks sexily around, bare legs stretching from beneath her dress; his dancing is imitative sex, a jumper’s sleeve wrapped round him flapping like a huge phallus.
There’s no way out once they’ve admitted their destructive passion; Strindberg’s idea of an elopement to open a hotel seems perfunctory here. Nor does John have another possible partner, Christine becoming his churchgoing mother rather than fiancée, bringing a new shock when her bible is flung down; religion is a poor substitute for the land and independence the Black people once had.
All this is set against the background of Freedom Day. It’s a version that comes over-free with upfront violence. Strindberg allows only one openly destructive moment, involving Julie’s last sentimental attachment, her pet greenfinch. Here, the bird’s fate seems muted after its cage has been repeatedly sent twirling, while there’s also bare-buttocked, bare-breasted sex, puppies’ blood in a bucket and an horrific mutilation.
But the energised, concentrated performances and Farber’s development of the separation beneath the desire give Strindberg a compellingly incisive edge, while the subdued but constantly evident live soundtrack and occasional slow-paced voice of ancestral song create the unease of a land where irreconcilables beat below the surface.
John: Bongile Mantsai.
Julie: Hilda Cronje.
Christine: Thoko Ntshanga.
Ancestor/Singer: Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa.
Musicians/Soundscape: Mark Fransman, Brydon Bolton.
Director: Yael Farber.
Designer/Lighting: Patrick Curtis.
Sound: Daniel and Matthew Pencer.
Costume: Birrie Le Roux.
Assistant director: Zoleka Helesi.