Posts Tagged ‘August Strindberg’

Strindberg’s 130-year-old play has been successfully updated / adapted before, most notably to apartheid South Africa as Mies Julie (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/03/14/mies-julie), and this is another successful interpretation by playwright Polly Stenham and director Carrie Cracknell. I found it edgy and bleak, but brilliant.

We’re in present day North London. Julie is the daughter of a rich man who seems to ignore her. Her mum is dead and her boyfriend has dumped her. It’s her 33rd birthday and a party is in progress, though it seems to be populated by hangers on. Back in the kitchen, the maid and her fiancée the driver, go about their business – until, that is, the suppressed attraction between Julie and driver Jean comes to the surface and it progresses to its tragic conclusion.

I thought the rave aesthetic worked well, but the kitchen scenes sometimes lacked intimacy. That said, there was a real sexual chemistry between Vanessa Kirby as Julie and Eric Kofi Abrefa as Jean, whose movements around one another seem animalistic. Kirby’s Julie comes over as a lonely, very troubled contemporary thirty-something who’s lost her way. Jean is torn between his perceived place in life and his desires. Thalissa Teixeira is excellent as Kristina, loyal and loving until she is betrayed by both. There are twenty non-speaking roles to ensure we get a realistic party.

Designer Tom Scutt has created a giant white rectangular box with a kitchen up front and a screen rising to reveal the party, but it is a big space for a play that is often just a two-hander, so as much as I admired the adaptation, the staging and the performances, there were times when it did feel a bit lost on the Lyttleton stage. Well worth catching, though.

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If you like your drama raw, visceral and harrowing, this is probably for you. Strindberg’s late 19th century play has been moved to post-apartheid South Africa. Instead of a Swedish noble’s estate, we’re on a Boar farm in the deeply conservative Karoo. The story and characters are the same, except the servant’s are mother & son instead of fiancée’s and its a whole lot more explicit. It’s not an easy ride, but it is riveting, tense and about as dramatic as drama gets.

The housekeeper’s son John has been brought up ‘downstairs’ at the same time as Boar farmer’s daughter Julie ‘upstairs’. His mother, the housekeeper, has been more of a mother to Julie than her own. John has been the offstage farmer’s ‘best boy’; the son he wanted but never had, but with the distinction apartheid brought. When Julie gets drunk and leaves the party to take refuge with the staff, the sexual tension comes to the surface, the baggage is opened and the socio-psychological impact of apartheid is laid bare, with tragic consequences.

It might be almost twenty years since the end of apartheid, but that’s not long enough to change people’s beliefs and values. The resentment’s of both white and black may be under the surface but they’re just as real, and here the relationship of John & Julie gives you profound insight into the implications of such an ingrained racial divide which is, somewhat ironically, deeper with younger South Africans than those who lived with it longer.

The soundscape of Daniel & Matthew Pencer creates a brooding, highly charged atmosphere. On cracked flagstones in the servant’s quarters, John & Julie prowl and stalk like wild animals. You can smell the hormones and feel the erotic charge. It’s electrifying. What you don’t see in Strindberg is in your face here. You have to turn away when it’s at its most brutal or voyeuristic. There are no repressed emotions here – they’re fully on display.

Bongile Mantsai & Hilda Cronje give stunning performances in the central roles – brave, dangerous and raw. Thoko Ntshinga is marvellous as mother Christine, single-handedly representing a whole generation who provided loyalty and service despite their treatment as possessions. These are the sort of committed, passionate performances that stand out in a lifetime of theatre-going. Yael Farber’s adaptaion and staging is extraordinary.

This is truly unmissable theatre that goes beyond entertainment to enlightenment, providing real psychological insight and a richly rewarding theatrical experience.

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