Strindberg is a bit of a dull sop, but this play is fantastic. Transplanting the original's action from stately Sweden to modern-day South Africa brings the latent social, historical and sexual tensions crackling to new life. Miss Julie (Hilda Cronje) is the daughter of a white landowner; John (Bongile Mantsai), her servant, and later her lover, is one of the black workers on her isolated farm.
The African landscape, and modern-day social conditions, are embraced fulsomely in the script, which has been given a very thorough re-write to suit the new setting. The sultry, oppressive heats of a summer night are evoked by a lazily circling ceiling fan, stark in the orange light and cutting through the smoky air. A genuinely scary African matriarch figure, who haunts the stage and marks passages of time, twangs, clacks and sings out a muffled, tribal soundtrack on improvised traditional instruments, a reminder of the context in which the two protagonists' emotions wrangle.
Julie and John are vulnerable and lustful, passionate and furious, wild and cruel by turns. Julie the little girl, the seductress, the hard, colonial mistress with a gun; John the cowed serving boy, the indignant native, the muscled man . The swiftness and extremity of these well-poised changes, which run the gamut of activity from the almost-nude sex on the table to real and threatened fisticuffs, makes this a draining and challenging play to watch, but never an unbelievable one.
The tensions and dramatic inequalities of a strict, European class system are probably impossible to make vivid once more to a modern audience. But the racial underpinning of this new setting, melted in with the alluring physicality of Africa, bring out the best in Strindberg's relic, which thus treated becomes a meaningful and harrowing display.