In 1994 South Africa was transformed. Nelson Mandela’s release from Robben Island catalysed a radical toppling of the country’s political, cultural and racial pillars culminating in his own accession to the presidency. Apartheid was over. Or was it?
Mies Julie confronts the stark reality of the country eighteen years on, showing us a nation still trapped by its past divisions. This adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1888 play Miss Julie is set in a remote, dust-bowl farmhouse, exploring the values of segregation and white domination that still exist today.
The play is like watching a car crash in slow motion, collateral damage is everywhere, tearing through sinews, people, the ground – destroying everything in it’s path.
On the farm is John, a young black man who has lived his life in subordination to his white landowners. His master’s daughter, Julie, taunts and flirts with him – he is beguiled by her, and she by him. The action is confined to the kitchen, a domestic setting transformed into bedroom, ballroom and amphitheatre. Catharsis for John is retribution. A pent up anger, suppressed with precision since birth, is coaxed out of him, and once his fire is lit it cannot be extinguished.
Bongile Mantsai’s performance as John is electrifying – a good man possessed by frustration, lust and revenge. His relationship with Julie, played with a wild-eyed mania by Hilda Cronje, is part-dance, part-fight. Pacing and diving across stage, the duo’s battle is a microcosm within which South Africa’s bloody history is revealed as a bloody present. Their violent, frenzied release on the kitchen table is one of the most graphic and raw moments we have witnessed on stage – abandoning humanity, ripping into each other like starving animals.
John’s mother, played by Thoko Ntshinga, brings a calming, nostalgic quality to the piece – a theme accentuated by the traditional songs sung and performed live. Playwright Yael Farber’s script is relentless – brutally reopening her country’s old scar, disrupting the nerve endings of a place that has chosen to accept the failings that still hold it back.
Mies Julie presents us with a world defined by its legacy of pain, violence and hate. It grabs you by the throat, pins you to wall and holds you there until its brutal climax – a beautiful battle between tenderness and brutality.
Mies Julie is on at Riverside Studios until 19 May. Demand for tickets is high, visit the Riverside website to book yours now.
Londonist saw Mies Julie on a press ticket.