Strindberg’s Miss Julie is here transferred by Baxter Theatre Centre, (South African State Theatre and Assembly) from its origins (Sweden, 1888) to South Africa under apartheid.
Julie, an unloved child of a mother who committed suicide, is the daughter of a wealthy Afrikaans farmer. John is a house-servant and favoured by the farmer whom we never see. The job of John’s mother, a house servant, (whose role replaces that of Christine, the cook) has been to look after Julie from childhood and John has had to take second place. John is, therefore, introduced early on to the unnatural and unjust conditions of apartheid.
At the opening of the play Julie’s engagement has been broken off by her fiancé and, separately, there are festivities going on for the black farmhands outside. Julie, when little, played with John and they have grown up together. As young adults, when the play opens, their relationship is much more problematic. They are both aware that they are separated and allocated unequal roles informed by the economic realities of the master-servant relationship, the overt values of the state and the cultural prejudices informing both sides. Julie’s rejection has produced in her a febrile state of mind which looks to exert some little autonomy in a known sphere of influence given to her by the acquired authority of race. She alternately taunts John and flirts with him playing with the, as yet, uncalculated force of his final response. Hilda Cronje’s characterisation is the taut pacing female determined to exercise her powers of attraction whilst afraid of the power it might unleash. We learn quickly from Julie that if there is a physical relationship, her father will kill John first and then Julie. Bringing all these forces together never mind just the tragic circumstances of her young life in the original play is a tall order for a young actor and I have yet to see a truly convincing production whatever its setting. The apartheid context makes the issues very obvious and the underlying issues of parental neglect are swamped by the violent interpretation. This is an extremely physical production, both violent and bloody, which actually lets the actors, both Hilde Cronje and Bongile Mantsai, off the hook in terms of the emotional range they need. Julie has to be manipulative and malicious and not just flirtatious; she has to wield a power that she did not know she had until her pride as a woman is galvanised by the failure of her engagement into the predatory white, disenfranchised and vulnerable, girl she becomes.
The best performance was given by Thokozile Ntshinga who takes the role of John’s mother. She has to care for Julie when required and any feeling behind the care may be genuine, but there is no disguising the subtle disgust and disappointment she feels for her son having discovered the two of them lying together in an all too obvious state of undress. In her we witness another kind of derangement and one caused not by the absence of childhood love but by an opposite scenario: the power of ancestral spirits emanating from burial places beneath the floor occasionally overwhelms her rationality. It is apparent that there are two kinds of ownership in this setting; one is the possession of land and workers by the white landowner and the other that very different kind of ownership: the belonging to the land of the indigenous peoples. Both exert powerful forces which prevent any of the protagonists escaping.
The last word has to go to the absent patriarch. His boots remain on stage the whole time – an ever-present reminder of unjust power legitimising personal violence. When John puts them on at the end of the play he literally steps out of the confines of his world and towards the power that will surely bring about his end.