Yael Farber relocated Strindberg's 1888 classic to post-apartheid South Africa â" and cut straight to its dark, throbbing heart
Strindberg's 1888 play Miss Julie, which focuses on a fatal sexual liaison between a servant and the daughter of a declining aristocratic household, comes so draped in outmoded class and gender politics â" not to mention its author's own hectic misogyny â" it would seem a likely candidate for the mausoleum. Patrick Marber's After Miss Julie, with its relocation to 1945 and the night after the Labour landslide, went a good way to solving the difficulties, but othersâ"most recently Juliette Binoche and director Frederic Fisbach with Mademoiselle Julie at the Barbican â" have struggled to bring this 19th-century play alive for contemporary audiences.
Not Yael Farber, at the Edinburgh fringe. The South African playwright and director got straight to the drama's dark, steamy heart in a production that renamed the play and relocated it to the kitchen of a parched Karoo farm in 2012. Julie became the Afrikaans daughter of a white farmer; Jean became John, a black farmhand. The servant Christineâ" Jean's fiancee, in Strindberg's original â" became his mother, and the woman who raised Julie after her mother's suicide. Instead of being a period piece, it was fiercely contemporary, a story of sex and betrayal, one that probed many of the fissures in contemporary South Africa.
In Farber's fierce, bare-boned adaptation â" set in a claustrophobic room where the very flagstones covered the bones and spilled blood of ancestors â" it wasn't just race but land, restitution, aspiration and even parental neglect that were under examination. The result was an evening so hot, so sexually charged, physically violent and with so much at stake that it often felt as if the stage would blister with the searing pain and passion of it all.
Sex is often awkward on stage at best; at worst, it's comic. But here it was so erotic and violent that you almost wanted to avert your eyes as Hilda Cronje's Julie and Bongile Mantsai's John turned sweaty physical coupling into a political metaphor. These were genuinely combustible performances, two people desperately tearing at each other as it dawns that they are both so damaged by the past that it's impossible for them even to make love, still less a future. Strindberg's play wasn't just dusted down â" it had a fire lit under it.Best theatre of 2012TheatreJuliette BinochePatrick MarberLyn Gardner
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