When Strindberg’s 1888 play was first transposed to a South African setting in 1985, Apartheid was at it’s height and the production caused an uproar for featuring an interracial kiss. This new adaptation by Yael Farber places the action in present day South Africa where it is the legacy of injustice and division, rather than the law, that stands in the way of the fiery love affair between the daughter of a landowner and a servant. These people would have spent only a few of their early years under the old regime, and yet it haunts them.
It is Freedom Day and the workers on a farm in the Karoo are celebrating 18 years since democracy came to South Africa. Julie insists that John should dance with her and, even though they have been companions since childhood, they both know this is playing with fire. Julie’s father has promised a bullet in the head for any black man who touches her, and the same for her, but she pursues John nevertheless, languidly draping herself over the furniture and teasing him.
The sexual tension between Julie (Hilda Cronjé) and John (Bongile Mantsai) crackles in this steamy, earthy adaptation filled with dust and blood. Christine is not John’s fiancée, as in the original, but his ageing mother, the woman who brought up Julie.
This is a drama as much about sexual politics as it is about the issue of land redistribution. Both Julie and Christine seem to have memories from their ancestors’ lives, recalling the sacrifices and injustices that back their claims on the land. Some of the most striking imagery used in the play exists in the speeches of these two women: Christine describes the graves of her people under a tree felled when the old farmhouse was built, while Julie laments the scorched earth and dead children of the Boer War.
Farber’s version of this staple is a harrowing, powerful piece of theatre. There are some puzzling details such as the mention of grain silos in the sheep-rearing district of the Karoo, and the addition of a mysterious witch doctor-like character who does not speak. The acting, however, is remarkably good, as is the sound, which is also performed on stage and gives the production an ominous atmosphere.