Yaël Farber's Mies Julie, on at the Cultch's Historic Theatre through next Saturday, is certainly not subtle. An updating of Strindberg's classic 1888 play to post-Apartheid South Africa, Farber's plot is surprisingly faithful to the original, down to the bit about the aborted puppies. But in adding race to Strindberg's mix of class and gender politics, it's as if the playwright felt she also had to ramp up the representational stakes of the protagonists' power games, making explicit and often shockingly visceral what can happen when dispossession comes in contact with desire.
It may be twenty years after the election of South Africa's first non-white government, but in the brutal desert region of the Karoo (also the setting of J.M. Coetzee's similarly themed novel Disgrace) Freedom Day only seems to reaffirm rather than level the old racial hierarchies. John (Bongile Mantsai) and his mother Christine (Zoleka Helesi) toil as servants in the kitchen of the white farm-owning family of Veenen Plaas, she cooking and cleaning a kitchen floor cracked by the roots of her restless ancestors, he polishing the unseen Master's boots. The Master's beautiful and imperious daughter, Julie (Hilda Cronje), recently humiliated by the breaking off of her engagement, is recklessly partying with the black farmhands, taunting John to join them. He reciprocates with insults of his own, and combined with the heat and the alcohol, the mutual provocations eventually turn to to lust, with of course tragic consequences.
All of this is played at a level of intensity that is beyond feverish, with Farber (who also directs) eschewing Strindberg's naturalistic acting style for something much more operatic. To this end, live musical accompaniment is a key feature of the work, an alto sax enveloping the stage in longing bass notes and Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa accompanying Helesi's Christine in successive mournful duets. However, even more compelling to me is the physical score that Farber has composed for her lead actors; taking advantage of their gorgeously lithe young bodies, and playing off the bottled up sexual and social energy of two young South Africans who continue to be trapped by their country's history, Farber has them dancing across the stage, and leaping spontaneously onto and off of the furniture, the virtuosity of their just-avoided contact making all the more anticipatory the hungry embrace we know is coming.
And while at times it felt to me that the overall avidity with which the performances were played came on a little too strong, there is no denying the impact. This production hits you like a wallop, and, take it from me, its after-effects will linger to disturb your sleep.