In director Yael Farber’s retelling of Strindberg’s famed play Miss Julie, the fated relationship between servant and master’s daughter takes place in the Karoo, a semi-desert region in South Africa. Imagine steamy, intense heat, poisonous frictions between classes and races, and a country seemingly unable to move on from past trauma; the conditions are uncomfortable and bleak. Mies Julie is not a play to be enjoyed, but endured, and with countless five-star reviews under its belt and nightly standing ovations, it appears the nation’s theatregoers are hungry for the play’s obvious brutality.
The action takes place in servant John’s kitchen on an evening when Julie decides to get drunk and revel with her subordinates. The opening scene presents a misty, edgy atmosphere in which Julie writhes around lustily and John does his best not to get too turned on. They become outstandingly angry and increasingly into each other, behaving like animals on heat. One major fuel to their fire is the fact that Julie’s never-seen father would ensure their coming together has horrific consequences. Adding to the sexual paranoia is that John’s mother, ever-loyal servant to Julie’s family, hovers around in the background looking on suspiciously. However, because I found this setup to be mind numbingly clichéd, the scene had me asking important questions such as, is John really wearing a very low-cut vest that has been obviously customised to display his well-developed man-cleavage?
To no surprise, John and Julie do indeed, after endless yelling, spitting and supposedly erotic fisticuffs, get to ‘know each other’, and of course, the outcome is not a white picket fence and puppies (well, actually there are puppies but this is a brutal play so they are brutally aborted and if you’re not feeling adequately pet-sad then a little bird is brutally killed before your eyes). Their relationship consummated, the pair are now even more brutal with one another, writhing around semi-nude while foaming at the mouth with equal measures of fervour and fear.
I know nudity and fearless sex scenes can add intensity to the stage, and I do want to be challenged by art – I am not someone who is only content with a happy ending – but Mies Julie left me feeling as though I had been unskilfully made to be uncomfortable for an hour and a half – not just by the obviousness of aborted puppies and in-my-face man-cleavage but also by boredom. I found my eyeballs simply rolling with the predictability of each ‘shock’ element as it was overacted, over explained and crudely rammed down my throat (Julie has bloody knickers after losing her cherry! There is puppy blood in the bucket! ). I am one of a small few who felt this however; the audience was whooping with admiration at the end of the performance. Perhaps I am just too brutal for Mies Julie.