Reviewed by Tony Peters
Yael Farber’s take on Miss Julie, the 19th-century Strindberg play about love and class, arrives at the Riverside Studios, carrying before it rave reviews from last year’s Edinburgh Festival.
There have been numerous adaptations of the work over the years, but I doubt any of them have packed quite the emotional punch of Farber’s version, which moves the action from the original setting of Sweden to post-apartheid South Africa.
In the oppressive heat of a South African night as workers celebrate Freedom Day, black farm hand John (Bongile Mantsai) finds himself alone with his white boss’s frustrated and volatile daughter Julie (Hilda Cronje).
Despite apartheid being dismantled, remnants of the old order remain and Julie uses her position of power to taunt John when he will not dance and drink with her. The air crackles with sexual tension as one minute Julie is provocative, the next slapping John down. The pair circle each other like prowling cats as the balance of power shifts and secrets and truths are revealed until John is driven to a violent and passionate act after which nothing can be the same for either of them.
The two leads are quite superb, both giving fearless performances of visceral intensity, while director Yael Farber masterfully builds the tension to the shattering climax. The overall mood of foreboding is wonderfully enhanced by the haunting soundscape design of Daniel and Matthew Pencer.
This is an uncompromising examination of passion and class that is far from being a comfortable watch and is at times downright unsettling and emotionally draining. But it is the job of art to challenge and question as well as entertain, and Mies Julie does that brilliantly.
I doubt you’ll see a more powerful piece of theatre this year.
Mies Julie plays at London’s Riverside Studios until 19th May 2013.