"You must see Mies Julie." So said the man in front of me in line for something else at the Edinburgh Fringe last summer. I meant to, as it sounded interesting but, as is often the way with the Fringe, making it fit into an already busy schedule proved troublesome. The title lingered though (not to mention his emphasis on the physical appeal of the lead actor), so when posters appeared announcing its arrival at the Riverside Studios, it seemed like an ideal time to see what prompted such acclaim.
Based on August Strindberg's 1888 play Miss Julie, Mies Julie transfers the action from a Count's estate in Sweden to a powerful and unseen white farmer's house in modern-day post-apartheid South Africa. The bulk of proceedings concerns his daughter Julie (Hilda Cronje) and John (Bongile Mantsai), a young black man who has worked for the family with his mother Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) for many years. In an early conversation, Julie tells John her father will "shoot the black man in the head that puts his hands on me", setting into motion a chain of events that seems doomed to end in despair.
That's not to say that it ever promises to end well - from one's first step into the studio, the excellent work of musicians Mark Fransman and Brydon Bolton gives a sense of foreboding, and the gloom never really lifts; much as some audience members try to find any opportunity to laugh in an attempt to pierce the tension, it's hard work from the off. Indeed, upon entering the space, every character wields a farming implement which instantly takes on the appearance and connotation of a weapon.
The interaction between John and Julie, which takes place in a kitchen as a storm rages outside, fizzles with the intensity of their lust and the power games that ensue - "Lick my foot", she orders - until it comes to a head in an animalistic, frantic and not especially erotic sexual encounter. The implications of what has happened and what might result from it become the fixation of all, with the possible exception of the captivating Ukhokho (Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa), an enigmatic female ancestor figure. (At least, she doesn't seem that bothered, but then she doesn't give much away.)
The performances are enormously committed and skilled, with Mantsai being especially effective as John, at once noble and wild; he's also a bit of a nifty mover, as evidenced in one welcome moment of levity. Hilda Cronje's Julie is brittle, spoilt and unlikeable in the extreme, and while she is far from sympathetic, John's memories of her childhood provide an insight into why she is the way she appears, and elucidate his love for her. Yael Farber's taut direction has the pair clattering around the stage in various states of desire, intimacy and contempt right up to the climactic moments, which had audience members yelping, gasping and/or shielding their eyes.
An intense experience (it's 90 minutes straight through), Mies Julie is both bleak and electrifying and while it has much it wants to say about modern-day South Africa, as a portrayal of a forbidden, incendiary coupling, it is nothing less than thrilling. To echo a man in a queue in Scotland, you'll be rattled and you'll be troubled, but you must see Mies Julie.