Review: Mies Julie (Assembly Rooms)
Updated: Jun 3
Adaptations in new settings can change an entire production. Sometimes you can take a Shakespeare play, for example, set it in post-World War II Shetland and all you change is the accent and costumes of the original, other times the meaning is changed entirely. That is what has happened with Yael Farber’s “Mies Julie”. Adapted from the 1888 August Strindberg play “Miss Julie”, this Swedish-set classic saw our eponymous wealthy young lady as she flirts with the manor’s valet Jean in the kitchen, hiding from a party on midsummer’s eve as they play power games with each other, both trying to seduce each other and remain in control at the same time. Yael Farber’s production, which was originally brought to life in 2012 by the Baxter Theatre Company and has enjoyed enormous success worldwide, takes her back to her roots and shifts this tale to a kitchen in post-apartheid Cape Karoo. Here, Jean is not just a manor valet, but a black farm labourer, and Julie is the white daughter of his master.
To make the new setting work and to create the atmosphere Farber wanted, she wrote the script used as well directing it. Everything on stage and everything that is said is designed to contribute to the incredibly intense atmosphere: the large amount of dry ice, the low, heavy and slow music, the colour palette of dark browns and blacks, the rough, worn set of a busy kitchen. It conjures up a setting of a late night, talking intimately with someone in sweltering heat, feeling that everything you say and do can be justified. There is a sense of importance to every sentence. The focus is less on Farber’s wonderfully punchy and minimalist script and more on the physicality of the production, the use of space, the tension. There is a real sense of both danger and lust between the characters, where you are never sure whether they will fight or make love.
There are few outlandish concepts or techniques, just a focus on maintaining tension. However, some obvious choices were made in some areas, for example the modern music and break dancing in a transition in which Jean is dragged to the party, and choosing to have Christine change in her character role from Jean’s fiancé in the original to being his mother and the primary carer in Julie’s life. Some of these work and others don’t. The modern music and style of that scene clashed with the more organic movement and sound of the rest of the production, as well as getting in the way of the moody aura of Jean’s character up until that point. I was sceptical of the U-turn in Christine’s character, but as I watched I realised that not only did it make perfect sense, in this production (in which Jean is rid of charm, just stony and cynical) it was the only possible direction for her character. The shocking ending, featuring (spoilers) a potential pregnancy, talk of inheritance and a scythe to say the very least, is also completely horrific and overwhelming, demonstrating the lengths to which they will go to in order to be dominant.
The performances of the cast are also incredible, with Hilda Cronje as Julie and Bongile Mantasi as Jean. Cronje seems made not just to play Miss Julie, but this specific incarnation of Miss Julie. She is strong and controlling, but lacking in the flirtatious manipulation that the character is traditionally known for, fitting in perfectly to the brutal, animalistic dynamic between her and Jean’s cruel, ambitious nature. Although, that cruel ambition gains new meaning here. Where originally his motivations were centred on feeling powerful and raising his status, even if only for a night, now they are simultaneously righteous and selfish, as he hopes to conceive a child that may take over the household in spite of the colour of his skin. Watching the two whirl around each other, especially when they were in conflict, it occurred to me that it never looked like an argument between a man and a woman but a fight between two wild beasts – equal in both strength and anger.
This adaptation of the classic may not be easily compared to its more traditional predecessors, but in truth, it will be difficult to see the play in the same way after seeing this. Though it was not without faults, the way the power play was utilised and explored is so raw and powerful that it leaves you holding your breath, scared to break the tension. You never root for either of them, you never root against either of them. For that, it is a perfect “Miss Julie”, and is unlike any you will have seen before. Four stars.