I’ll admit it. I didn’t get Strindberg. Introduced to the talky, stagey play The Pelican in college — I had a bit part — I thought he was one of those playwrights that made sense long ago, but was no longer relevant. Like many impressions from my shallow youth, this one was all wrong.
Mies Julie, a production of the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town is a reinvention of Strindberg’s classic set in South Africa. It’s now on view at The Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, DC.
This production is vital, feral, ablaze from the moments before the play starts — as the stage fills with smoke and ominous sound — to the final, inevitable end.
Maybe you’ve read or seen the play? If not, you can catch up in just a second. John, a servant, is polishing master’s boots. Julie, the daughter of the estate’s owner, is drunk, and dancing provocatively at a midsummer party for the estate’s workers. (At least in the Swedish original it’s midsummer; in South Africa it’s always hot, so no season needs to be specified).
In both versions, John and Julie grew up together, separated by class, looking across the gulf at each other. On this night, they pledge their love to each other, but measuring that gulf, they ultimately find it uncrossable.
Tellingly, Strindberg had complicated John’s life with a third character, Christine, who is his peer and fiancée. In Yael Farber’s African retelling, Christine is instead John’s mother. A fourth character — a musician, dancer, witch, and very solid white-faced black ghost — joins her as an ancestor. The two women embody spirits who will never rest until many more generations work out the class and racial catastrophe that is the South Africa’s history.
John and Julie are almost never off the stage for Farber’s intermission-less 90 minutes, and if there’s one small complaint I have about this powerful production it is the unrelenting pitch of Hilda Cronje’s performance in the title role. She begins in a fever, and never wavers or varies the intensity of her performance. From seduction to sorrow to self-injury, she throws off so many sparks that you wonder why and how John can even catch her for the moment it takes for them to consummate their union.
She’s crazy in some deep significant way, and that should allow her some freedom to be sweet and sexy, or girlish, just to give us a break for a moment.
Bongile Mantsai is John, and the power of his performance comes from the fact that he never forgets his “place” as a servant — until he gives in for just a moment to his fantasy. Willing to use his attractiveness and power as a ticket out of the prison he’s trapped in, he finally realizes that the power will always lie with his masters, no matter what he does.
The complication of race, in a play that was first staged in apartheid South Africa, is never out of sight. We understand that John can be killed for his transgression, whether or not Julie carries through on her threat to cry “rape.” And yet, without that complication, Strindberg has provided the foundation of the story and its churning engine of sex and class, privilege and want.
And so, this South African adaptation is not a twisting or improvement of Strindberg’s original, only a version. And that’s why I’m going to start paying a little more attention to his work when I find it in the future. Like I said, it sometimes takes me a while to catch on.