I have just been to see the much praised South African production of Mies Julie, set in a desolate farmland district in South Africa with a black John and a white Julie. Christine is John’s mother in this production and there is also an old woman with her face painted white, walking around and making some exotic Xhosa sounds with an instrument similar to a mouth organ. She represents ‘Ancestor’.
The bare stage, apart from a rather tatty kitchen table and chairs, a bucket and a whole row of dirty wellies lined up at the back, invoked an unglamorous hard-working farm.
Hilda Cronje, who plays Julie, circles around John and Christine, at a loss what to do, angry, dishevelled even from the beginning of the play and gives the impression of a cat on heat.
The plot has been adapted to suit South African circumstances and the resentment between John and Julie works very well, but the director - who also calls herself the writer of this piece - has done away with all subtleties, which means that the flirtatious scenes at the beginning of the play are gone and the eroticism has been replaced by brute force. The simulated rape scene, which took place in front of the audience, was almost unbearable to watch. After that drawn-out violent scene Julie puts her hand on her crutch and produces a bloody hand which is supposed to indicate that she was a virgin. She spits in John’s face, he handles her physically like a slave and she brandishes a sickle which she finally uses in order to miscarry.
I walked away thinking Strindberg had been raped as well. Everything except the violence had been peeled away and what was left was a brutal, unsubtle, but maybe truthful picture of South Africa during and after Apartheid. I doubt that Strindberg would have approved, though, but, on the other hand, it is remarkable that this play still manages to engage and shock. I think where it failed, as far as I am concerned, is that Julie was never the lady in this production. She looked like a wayward child, picked up from the gutter. The problem with that is that she had nowhere to go. There was no real fall. The count was never a threat either. His riding boots with spurs had been abandoned and John was polishing some sturdy shoes instead. No bell announced the count’s arrival at the end and that, in turn, meant that there was no urgency to get away or commit suicide. Here, Julie produced a bucket full of ‘blood’ when she stuck her sickle up her vagina. To underline the message Christine then turns up with a bucket of blood as well which she pours into the drain. Julie’s dog had also miscarried.
The production was very bleak, and black and white in more than one sense.