Mies Julie | Perth Festival 2014Photo – Mark Wessels

Mies Julie
is 90 minutes of intensifying tension, movement and raw passion played out on the Octagon stage, and a wonderful start to the theatre program of the 2014 Perth International Arts Festival.

Directed by Yael Farber, the show comes from the Baxter Theatre Centre in association with the South African State Theatre. Based on August Strindberg’s Miss Julie, it has been updated to a remote farm in contemporary South Africa, where race is still an issue 20 years after apartheid.

The story centres on Julie (Mies Julie), the young white daughter of the farm owner; and John, the famers’ black servant. Also present are Christine, John’s mother and the household maid, and the ghost of their ancestors, who have been on the land for centuries.

It is Freedom Day, and the tension outside the kitchen is nothing compared to the tension that builds inside between Julie and John. Julie, drunk and recently dumped, teases and cajoles John until events explode and start a train of incidents that end in disaster. It’s a powerful piece of theatre; raw, shocking and confronting.

The set is a detailed yet symbolic view of the homestead kitchen, with red tiles, old, well-worn furniture and enamel crockery. Everything is ingrained with red dirt and as Christine scrubs the kitchen floor, she tells us that below the house her ancestors are buried.

The music and soundscapes are composed by brothers Daniel and Matthew Pencer and performed live on stage by Brydon Bolton and Mark Fransman. The constant undercurrent of music complimented and increased the on stage tension and reminded me that live sound outshines recorded in the theatre every time.

As the Ancestor, Tandiwe Lungisa played a variety of traditional instruments accompanied by her guttural, wordless singing, effortlessly pulling the past onto the present stage in Perth. Lungisa remained on the side of the stage for the majority of the performance, an ever presence of the past.

As Christine, Thoko Ntshinga effectively portrayed the solid yet subjugated maid; loyal to her ancestry yet also loyal to her white employers. Christine is the voice of reason against the two tempestuous youths and I found her the most agreeable character.

I haven’t seen such raw, suggestive and sexually explicit scenes on stage for a long time (if ever). Hilda Cronje and Bongile Mantsai were utterly convincing as the interlocked Julie and John, and it was enthralling, albeit confronting, to watch.

“But you said you loved me,” screams Julie in one scene. “So what?” John responds. This line stayed with me as the epicentre of the play – regardless of their love (or not), their racial differences and upbringing in South Africa at the time made the possibility of being together virtually impossible.

The central themes of race and love were so intertwined, it was hard to tell where one left off and the other began. Mies Julie is a pressure-cooker of a play, well worth seeing if you can get a ticket.

Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town in association with the South African State Theatre
Mies Julie
by Yaël Farber | based on August Strindberg’s Miss Julie

Directed by Yaël Farber

Venue: Octagon Theatre, UWA Perth
Dates: 7 – 13 February 2014
Tickets: $25 – $59.50
Bookings: perthfestival.com.au

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