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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Riverside Studios


  Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronj√©/ Ph: William Burdett-Coutts

Every now and then an idea for a play (or in this case, an adaptation) comes along that is so brilliant, yet such a no-brainer in terms of its appropriateness, that you can’t help wondering why someone hadn’t thought of it before. The idea is re-inventing August Strindberg’s groundbreaking Miss Julie, a shocker when it first took the stage in 1888, not just as a tragedy about class, but as a deeply disturbing comment on the racial tensions that continue to exist in post-apartheid South Africa. 

Writer/director Yael Farber relocates the play’s original Swedish setting, in which an aristocratic woman had a passionate liaison with a servant, to a farm in South Africa’s desolate Karroo, where, despite it being April 27, 2012 – Freedom Day – there still exists an ingrained hatred and suspicion between black servants and their white “masters.”

Though the “master” is never seen, his presence is felt throughout the 90-minute drama, during which his favorite house “boy” John (a charismatic Bongile Mansai) is seen polishing his boss’s boots with anger and resentment bordering on the explosive. Though 20 years may have passed since Nelson Mandela’s release, for John nothing has changed. He is still a menial servant joined at the hip to his people’s oppressive past and with no property or money to call his own. As he so eloquently puts it, “Welcome to the New South Africa, where miracles leave us exactly as we began.”

The seething frustration he constantly feels is aggravated by his lifelong attraction to his master’s daughter, Julie (Hilda Cronje), a bored, provocative young woman, equally frustrated with her life on the farm and sexually drawn to John knowing that her “kaffir” hating father would probably kill them both if those desires were ever to be consummated, which, as the play moves inexorably to its blood-spattered climax, they are.

With a nod in the direction of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms, Farber’s visceral, intense and gut-churning adaptation ticks so many boxes regarding the issues still faced by many rural South Africans – both black and white – and elaborates on and adds to the themes originally employed by Strindberg, that, at the performance I attended, the climax initially left the audience stunned into shocked silence. Only halfway through the curtain call were they able to fully show their appreciation for the astonishing drama they had just witnessed.

Though the piece is, of course, dominated by the doomed lovers – both of whom give performances I can only describe as eviscerating – there’s touching support from Thoko Ntshinga as John’s mother, a dyed-in-the-wool product of South Africa’s old regime and a compassionate woman who has seen the change in her country but, like her son, is powerless to embrace it. Unlike her son, though, she is prepared to accept it.

Musicians Mark Fransman and Brydon Bolton supply a broody atmospheric soundtrack to the proceedings, and the minimal but effective kitchen setting and lighting that goes with it is the excellent work of Patrick Curtis. Also adding immeasurably to the production’s impact is the remarkable sound design by Daniel and Matthew Pencer.

Few evenings in the theatre pack the dramatic punch delivered by Mies Julie. Quite simply, it has to be seen.


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