Tue 23 April
until 19 May
Temporarily, summer struck London last week. In Hammersmith it was warm and humid, sultry almost – an apt night to be watching Mies Julie, as Strindberg’s 19th century masterpiece is transported to the South African summer. But if I thought it was hot outside, it was nothing to the atmosphere in Riverside Studio 2. This play burns. It crackles with energy, sizzles with raw sexuality, and exudes heat, tension and passion like nothing else I have seen. It is a production that grabs hold of you and won’t let you go; it puts you on the edge of your seat and refuses to let you sit back. This hit of the Edinburgh Fringe has certainly proved it can cut some seriously hot mustard in its London transfer.
Strindberg’s original has undergone some pretty hefty changes in Yael Farber’s adaptation: the move to contemporary South Africa is the obvious one, but the dynamics have also been shifted significantly by the fact that Christine the fiancée has here become Christine the mother. Any doubts about this alteration, which of course eliminates the ‘love triangle’ aspect of the play – what is John now choosing between? – were banished as I began to understand this adaptation. At the heart of it is not just a ‘will-they-won’t-they’ romance, but a battle between master and servant, white and black, and the past and future of this troubled land. The droning music is pulsating, throbbing, almost unbearably uncomfortable at times: together with the feeble attempts of the rickety fan to break the sweltering heat, it demonstrates this show’s intensity, which is heightened by the lack of interval – a smart decision which increases the sense of entrapment. Certain moments of the show are pretty difficult to watch, and the audience are allowed no let-up.
As John and Julie circle each other, sometimes like children at play, other times like wary lions about to fight, the energy between them is electric. Their attraction yet simultaneous fierce anger has them dodging towards and away from each other, manoeuvring around the stage in a highly sexually-charged cat-and-mouse chase. Their movements are almost dance-like, drifting together and apart but apparently incapable of breaking out of this cycle. The lightest of touches sets the sparks flying: when the impulses are finally acted upon, the consummation of it is violent, desperate and animalistic. Although it is important for subsequent plot details, in some ways it is a shame that the result of these urges has to be played out before us: the simmering attraction between the two leads was a masterclass in seemingly effortless on-stage chemistry, as Bongile Mantsai and Hilda Cronje work flawlessly together to depict tempestuous temptation. On stage for practically the entire show, they demonstrate great stamina in upholding the intensity for the whole duration.
The introduction of South African politics to this play refracts its themes through a different lens. Masculinity, entrapment, class, ownership: the questions are all still present in almost overwhelming strength, but there is a new bite and bitterness to the stagnancy of the situation. Apartheid is over and a new dawn has reached the nation, but here it seems as if not much has changed: as John cries bitterly, “Welcome to the new South Africa, Miss Julie, where miracles leave us exactly where we began”. Futility reigns as every plan to escape their roots comes up against a brick wall: everywhere violence and brutality threatens to crush Julie’s fragile yet intense soul, and stifle John’s passion. The audience visibly cringed and audibly gasped at moments of horror, most notably the ending which was the most viscerally horrible I have seen on stage. It is partly its gruesome nature but also the pointlessness of this loss of life which is so affecting, and its cyclical nature as Christine is left to clean up the mess, just as she did after the tragic death of Julie’s mother.
Rarely is there a production that carries this level of intensity, power and raw emotion. Everything from the lead performances to the script adaptation to the musicians comes together to create an explosive work that is gutsy, passionate and altogether extraordinary.