Why you can’t miss Julie

For a play written 125 years ago and composed in a fortnight, Miss Julie certainly has staying power. August Strindberg’s 1888 drama is a staple fixture in the international repertoire, often produced, often adapted.

London has had a crash course recently. Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie was staged at the Young Vic last spring; Mademoiselle Julie, a modern French take, visited the Barbican in September, and the Berlin Schaubühne’s Fräulein Julie is about to be performed at the same venue.

Meanwhile, Mies Julie, a blistering reworking of this erotic dance of death between a wealthy young woman and her father’s servant, has just moved into London’s Riverside Studios.

So how does the play retain its draw, and why the temptation to adapt it? Clearly the combustible mix of sex, class and powerplay still appeals. But for Yael Farber, writer and director of Mies Julie, the sex is just the starting point.

“It’s the trigger,” says Farber. “This is going to sound ironic because the sex in my version is so graphic but people get very easily misled into making the sex the centre of the work. It is the central unlocking device but it’s what occurs afterwards that should be so much more shocking – how a brutally honest dialogue gets opened up between a man and a woman who are, for the first time, able to say what needs to be said. I think why Strindberg’s work continues to be revived and adapted is because the central narrative device is quite a brilliant one.”

In Farber’s searing staging, that ferocious encounter happens not in a 19th-century Swedish kitchen but in a remote farmstead in contemporary South Africa. The setting is the Karoo, a bleak desert region, and the atmosphere is prickly, hot and volatile. The cat-and-mouse games here are played by Julie, sullen daughter of the white farm-owner, and John, a black farm labourer. Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai are painfully reckless and raw as the couple. There’s a mix of formality, intimacy and insolence to their early exchanges, a feral intensity to their coupling and, by the end, a desolate sense of what could have been for these two young people.

“On farms in South Africa the white landowners’ children grew up quite intimately with the black labourers’ children,” says Farber, a native South African. “So they have very powerful shared childhood memories. Then, at a certain point, their lives diverged and one went on to be the master and the other to be in servitude.”

In the original play the atmosphere is febrile, the family unstable. In Farber’s visceral rewrite, the malaise is much broader: she suggests a country still struggling with the legacy of apartheid. The production starts at fever pitch and everything is extreme and charged with violence: the atmosphere, the dialogue, the sex.

“In the original version both Julie’s death and the sex happen offstage,” says Farber. “But because South Africa is such a confrontational society, we have to make theatre that reaches the intensity that the community is living. For me it was: be as upfront as possible about the sexuality and then keep raising the bar as these two people get more and more naked in front of each other. There is an intimacy and a connection that tie them both to the same piece of land and at the same time it’s what will destroy them.”

Any potential tenderness between the couple is destroyed as they battle viciously over their shared, divided past and their claim on the land. “At the core of Mies Julie is the redistribution of the land,” says Farber. “Which is a central issue facing South Africa right now.”

For Katie Mitchell, director of Fräulein Julie, the impact of the original lies not just in its subject matter but also in its style. Strindberg’s deliberate use of naturalism was “a consciously radical formal experiment”, she says. “It’s an incendiary, revolutionary piece and it still has that motor inside it.”

Her staging aims to reignite that innovative shock. It delivers the play in period but from the perspective of Jean’s fiancée, Christine, so we see only what she sees. It blends live action and film: five cameras project every detail on to large screens. Mitchell says the considerable risk of something going wrong horrifies film-makers who watch the show. But that fits with the danger faced by all the characters and, says Mitchell, is “true to the innovative motor of the original material”.

Shifting a play to a new context can prove revelatory. Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie works because, like Mies Julie, it fuses the personal, physical battle in the play with a much bigger issue (in the case of After Miss Julie, the seismic socio-political shifts in 1945 postwar Britain).

But updating a text can strain credibility. The plot of Romeo and Juliet collapses if the young lovers can text one another. Lucy Kirkwood’s 2008 Hedda, a clever update of Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, stumbled on the question of why, in the 21st century, Hedda would feel unable to leave her marriage or get a job.

And in an age of laptops, the all-important destruction of Eilert Lövborg’s precious manuscript posed a problem – so Hedda swallowed the memory stick.

The adaptations that work best are quite often the most audacious: Frantic Assembly’s rough 2008 Othello set in a northern pub, for instance, or the Young Vic’s recent mash-up of Three Sisters. Reworking a classic is, admits Farber, “a very cheeky act”.

“You have to be careful or you can do theme-park Shakespeare or Strindberg,” she says. “It is like sticking parts on that just fall off. If the audience is admiring how you’ve relocated something to somewhere else, then you have placed yourself as the star of the work. To re-contextualise there has to be a reason. And once you’re going to go there, you have to go all the way. It is all or broke.”

‘Mies Julie’, Riverside Studios, London, to May 19, www.miesjulie.com

‘Fräulein Julie’, Barbican, London, April 30-May 4, www.barbican.org.uk

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