Not so much a new version as a total re-write, this raw and coruscating post-apartheid South African transplant of Strindberg's play was the buzz production at last year's Edinburgh Festival fringe. For once, reality matches expectation: Yael Farber's production for the Baxter Theatre Centre at the University of Cape Town is a total blast.
If it has a fault, it's to do with burdening the play with more political, sexual and historical cargo than it can bear. But the performances of Hilda Cronje as the white farm girl Julie and Bongile Mantsai as the black worker Jean - still polishing his master's boots, but stripped to a white vest and beige overalls - are literally electrifying.
Both actors are wired, taut, athletic and fearless in a dance of vengeful self-defence that ends with an act of brutish sexual congress on the kitchen table, not unlike that of Jack Nicholson and Jessica Lange in rural California in The Postman Always Rings Twice.
The difference here is that Julie and Jean are each staking a claim not so much in each other as on the land itself. It's not Midsummer's Eve, as in Strindberg, but Liberation Day, and the ancestral ghosts are roused, in the shape of the floor-scrubbing drudge Christine (Thoko Ntshinga) - also, in this version, Jean's mother - and a thrumming, growling guardian of Xhosa culture (Tandiwe Nofirst Lungisa) who stalks the action with a strange exotic bow and gourd-like instrument and complements two other musicians at the side of the stage.
The face-off is bounded by childhood memories, territorial taunts and the physical threat of a huge hunting rifle on one side of the stage and a lethal sickle on the other. No hint of happiness or salvation. Julie's caged canary is not sliced on a bread board (it's all a bit messier than that) and the sickle plays its part in adding to a stream of blood.
While Strindberg deals with notions of class and sexual repression, Farber's play rolls in issues of caste, rape, rights of ownership, abortion and political pessimism: "Welcome to the new South Africa, Mies Julie, where miracles leave us exactly where we began."
It seems at least that the theatre itself has been a beneficiary of the muddle, in terms of the land issue and the farmers. Jean's forebears are buried under the kitchen. But Julie's, too, are resting outside by the willow trees. Athol Fugard's early plays wondered whose life was it anyway; the new South African drama asks, whose land?
Photo: Francis Loney